Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will retire on June 30th and he is already nearly universally acclaimed as one of the greatest Secretary of Defense in our nation's history. It is easy to understand why. As he acknowledged during his remarks at West Point last February, our country has faced a bevy of challenges during his tenure, including, "terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber, piracy, proliferation, natural and man-made disasters, and more."
But he has also deeply personalized what he has stated he considers his most enduring challenge, the care and health of the soldiers under his command. From his appearance on 60 Minutes in May, to the speeches he has delivered in the field during his farewell tour over the last couple months visiting our troops in theater, the poignant message he delivers to our nation's soldiers is consistent:
"You need to know that I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters ... My only prayer is that you serve with honor and return home safely. I personally thank you for your service from the bottom of my heart ... and ask God to bless every one of you."
With President Obama's announcement last week that the 33,000 surge troops deployed in Afghanistan will be coming home sometime in 2012, perhaps the end of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are finally within grasp. But a new challenge will soon come into focus as the fog of war begins to lift: the care of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers that we have asked to unduly bear the brunt of the War on Terror.
For my generation -- the children of the 80s -- who grew up with the specter of the Cold War but at its conclusion naively believed that we may not have to experience sustained war in our lifetimes, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan may still seem like a distant reality. In truth, we asked so few of our citizens to bear this responsibility on multiple combat tours, while the vast majority of us never volunteered to go even once. Many of us have not had to confront the realities of post-combat life. Many may confuse the fact that so few Americans have died in comparison to other wars that our generation's sacrifice may be less than we realize. This may be why, in perhaps his last official contribution to America, Secretary Gates is using his farewell tour to remind us that the care of our wounded peers is a national priority.
It is true, that while the number of deaths of American service members in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to climb (11 in the last two weeks alone), the total number of American fatalities (6,026 deaths) is still statistically significantly lower than wars in Vietnam (58,220 deaths) and Korea (36,574 deaths), and greatly less than World War II (405,399).
Due to body armor and improved helmets, better emergency medical care and rapid transport of injured troops to treatment, many soldiers that may have died in Vietnam or Korea are surviving their injuries today. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a branch of the Library of Congress that provides objective, nonpartisan research, analysis, and information to members of Congress, as of mid-2009 six out of every seven American soldiers wounded in Iraq lived, as opposed to Korea and Vietnam where approximately one in every three wounded soldiers died of their injuries. American veterans are surviving their service today in greater injury-to-death ratios than the major conflicts of the past century. But, they are coming home having endured devastating damage that would have been fatal in past eras.
As of May, 2011 the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reported that 212,742 American soldiers sustained Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) between 2000 - May, 2011. While TBIs counted in the study include "everything from a mild concussion (getting your "bell rung") to an injury that penetrates the skull and destroys brain tissue," the total number of incidents are alarming. Considering that roughly 2.2 million soldiers serve in the combined active and reserve American military that means that approximately one out of every 12 of our soldiers have sustained a TBI.
While undoubtedly many of these incidents of brain injuries were mild in nature, akin to a concussion, even the National Football League is now paying particular attention to the negative long-term impact on players of sustaining multiple concussions over time as a serious issue.
Confounding the problem, often times TBIs are combined with additional injuries including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the CRS, 39,331 individual cases of PTSD were reported from January, 2005 to March, 2010. Further, between 2000 and 2009, there were 5,307 hospitalizations and 578,120 outpatient visits in which PTSD was the primary diagnosis, meaning that many soldiers seek multiple sessions of PTSD outpatient treatment.
Any way you slice these figures, or thousand others out there that attempt to document the impact of injuries on our veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, these fine men and women are hurting and they need and deserve our help. While one can take limited comfort in the fact that many of our soldiers are surviving their tours of duty in higher ratios than previous wars in recent memory, we cannot lose track of the fact that they are returning to civilian life with traumatic injuries in far greater numbers than the past, and certainly more than any of us in the age 18-35 demographic have witnessed before in our lifetimes. Caring for these men and women is a national duty that will extend well beyond withdrawal dates from Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a fact rarely mentioned and too often missed, but not by Bob Gates.
Gates has often spoke of a "sacred contract" between the American people and our military, what he has called "an inviolable promise, that when young Americans step forward of their own free will to serve, they can do so with the expectation that they and their families will be properly cared for." But the burden of caring for our wounded cannot and should not be borne by our government alone. Private citizens have an opportunity to contribute as well and in honor of Secretary Gates. Why not donate one hour of time this summer to our returning veterans? Visit a VA hospital, contact your congress members to push for legislation that supports veterans or simply reach out and develop a closer relationship with a member of your community who has served in these conflicts. Pay attention to ways you might be able to be helpful -- a strong show of support in re-adjusting to civilian life may make a huge difference in someone's life.
As the American Forces Press Service reported last week, speaking at a fundraising event for wounded warriors and their families, Secretary Gates made an emotional promise to the veterans present, "The debt owed by all Americans to those of you who have given so much can never be fully repaid ... You have my deepest gratitude and respect for all that you have given. Know that I, along with many others here tonight and all across the country, will be an advocate for you for the rest of my days."
For all that these wars have meant to both sides of the political debate, and more importantly for both the fragile good and the devastating harm that the violence has wreaked, perhaps caring for the Americans we asked to most greatly endure the burden of these times is the healing our country needs at this moment. Perhaps it is the best way for our generation to honor Secretary Gates' service and his commitment to the troops we have lost and for the many more that our still among us.
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