Today we mark the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. Recent reports indicate that the situation there has improved considerably. The focus is shifting back to Afghanistan. President Obama has made good on his campaign promise to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The question remains, though, with a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and uncertainty in the surrounding region, whether our troops will actually come home or whether they will be redeployed to Afghanistan or elsewhere.
We have lost nearly 5000 American men and women who, we can all agree, regardless of our personal feelings about the wars, bravely served our country. More than 33,000 Americans have been severely wounded. Beyond these horrifying numbers are the psychological toll these wars are taking on our service members and their families with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, as well as the everyday, but very serious, stress and strain that deployments and separations can have on marriages and families. Sadly, these problems are not going to disappear when the wars ever end. Studies show that post-traumatic stress never truly goes away but it can be managed. These studies also show that in order for the normal reactions-stress that one would expect anyone to have after experiencing combat and other terrifying situations-not to become a full-blown disorder, professional mental health services should be accessed quickly.
The DoD and VA are making an effort to address the issue, but they also seem to be moving at the normal speed of government, rather than the sort of accelerated government speed the financial crisis has produced. We must look to the private sector to step in to ensure that help is available when and where it is needed.
This anniversary of the war is an appropriate time to take note of the work of Give an Hour (www.giveanhour.org), a nonprofit organization that has created a national network of mental health professionals who are providing free counseling to military personnel, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. The Give an Hour network has nearly 4,000 professional volunteers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
There are so many areas of need and a federal budget deficit far beyond what our country has seen since World War II. No amount of government funding or intervention will fix all the problems that years of gluttony, greed and eight years of Bush mismanagement have created. In the case of the mental health of our military, I believe that what we all seek is exactly the model that Give an Hour has built. It echoes President Obama's call for volunteers to give in a way that they know how to give. These licensed mental health professionals are volunteering a vital service--a true thank-you to the men and women who have served our country, rather than just a lapel pin or magnet on our cars. What's more, it is likely to translate into a significant savings to the government and the taxpayers. Give an Hour aims to recruit 40,000 - or ten percent of the country's 400,000 licensed mental health professionals - to its network. The help that can be provided to veterans now is likely both to help them have better lives in the future and to save taxpayers costs of caring for their problems in the future.
Americans have differed on the wars into which the former president took the nation, but we should all be able to agree on the need to provide the best possible care for those who served in those wars.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College and the author of The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (Random House) and Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man" (North Carolina). His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).