The American leadership class has abandoned the Americans it purported to lead, none more disgracefully than the veterans of their wars of the past 50 years, first those of Vietnam, then those all-volunteer forces of today’s undeclared wars.
Those wars and greed accompanying them have made Americans less secure than at any time in our history, with generations of veterans and their families being wasted. They have become collateral damage in the quest of our leaders to dominate the world for their personal benefit.
For more than 50 years we drafted our future veterans; alternatively we have induced them to service in an all-volunteer force. In neither system has our country honored the sacrifice and experience of those who lived and continue to live undeclared war in our name. The Vietnam veteran was abandoned while still in uniform; the all-volunteer veteran was abandoned before he or she put the uniform on.
We now face a reckoning. Veterans and their families are suffering. No amount of charity or public relations can relieve the massive pressures on our veterans. And no national election in our country can be said to be consistent with the meaning of American democracy that does not account for the immediate and future needs of those who fought to preserve it.
Our first task as a nation is to acknowledge and accept the obligation to support the physical and mental rehabilitation of our veterans as long as they live. This is not an unknown cost of war. We have simply refused to plan for it or to pay for it, beginning with the veterans of Vietnam. We have known since World War I, reinforced in every war since, that war’s trauma undermines the mental health of those who serve.
We must invest in the personnel and medical infrastructure to remove the stigma of mental rehabilitation and deliver it for all veterans and their families. Fulfilling this obligation to them will cost billions, but the cost will be redeemed by the unleashed capacity of our veterans to reconstruct the America they fought for piece by piece, starting with their cities and counties and states.
Much of what they fought for surrounded them and their families in a military unlike any of our past. Our all-volunteer military was built to be a community. Order, structure, a sense of transcendent purpose and a commitment to mutual support: these were the features of community, however imperfectly executed, that fortified our service members and their families as all other Americans went about their daily lives unbothered by 15 years of war.
A sense of community sustained our soldiers as they served our leaders’ interests. Our veterans and their families rightfully expect our leaders to sustain a service community for them, in or out of uniform. Many veterans sense the need for community; virtually all are reluctant to ask.
Asking for community seems un-warrior-like and, equally to be avoided, selfish. But imagining, seeking and realizing the American community is what our long experiment in democracy is all about. It is what our veterans fought for and what most Americans of goodwill and intelligence would support their attaining, beginning in our local communities.
It is time for our veterans, from Vietnam to Afghanistan/Iraq, to organize and to act with that unity and discipline, honed in the remembrance of the comrades they buried and with the confidence to create a leadership class worthy of a revived American community that remembers those comrades and their families’ sacrifice.
Melvina Scott is a Waterloo resident. Delbert Spurlock worked
for the Department of the Army during the Reagan administration.