Every year on Veterans Day, the nation puts on a ceremonial show of patriotism. We bring out the flags; strike up the band, and veteran soldiers march in cities and towns across the country. But annual acknowledgements are trivial tributes when compared to the daily dilemmas and the ongoing difficulties that often characterize military service.
Fifty years from now, how will the American public regard the veterans who’ve fought in America’s most recent wars?
If the treatment of Vietnam veterans has taught us anything, today’s returning combat veterans may face a very hard fate.
Historians don’t deny it. More than a few Americans showed unabashed contempt for the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Veterans from that era have inherited a lackluster legacy.
For the past 50 years, Vietnam veterans have been trying to salvage recognition for the wounds they’ve suffered and the sacrifices they’ve made. Many have endured the indignities of homelessness, joblessness, drug addiction, and a host of debilitating psychological problems.
It took nearly 20 years after the war ended for the government to recognize and offer treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, an ailment that plagues far too many combat veterans.
Now, nearly six decades later, the battleground has shifted from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia to the oil fields of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Today, there seems to be more public support for the troops, even though the conflict in Iraq is becoming almost as unpopular as Vietnam was.
Today, veterans are being screened for mental health problems earlier and more often than Vietnam veterans were. But one does not need to be a psychic to predict that there will be many dark days ahead for the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Years from now, if we see them standing in lines at the homeless missions, or bundled in rags and panhandling on city street corners, will Americans remember their heroic deeds? When we hear news stories telling of their troubled lives, will the public understand it may be because of the trauma they’ve experienced? Will the government and society rally to help them heal and address their needs? If the past is a predictor, many veterans may be seen as mere derelicts, idle, wandering vagrants.
Yesterday’s soldiers fought for today’s freedoms at the expense of their lives, their health, even their sanity. Some combat wounded veterans are physically disfigured while others bear tormenting psychological scars.
General Douglas MacArthur once ended a speech by saying: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
But old soldiers do die. It’s their deeds that often fade away.
Vondell Jones is a 73-year-old disabled Vietnam War veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1968 to 1970.