Food for thought before Veterans Day
By Nick Carey
After reading my special report “For U.S. veterans, the war after the war,” a colleague asked me what the impetus for the story was and how I went about getting it.
The starting point is actually mentioned in passing in the report. In August, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Chicago and gave a speech at the Executives’ Club of Chicago. I was sent to cover the event for Reuters and wondered in advance why on earth Mullen would come to speak to the city’s business community, instead of, say, veterans’ groups.
To my surprise, Mullen was frank about the problems facing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan – PTSD, TBI, depression, unemployment, homelessness, suicide – and openly asked local businesses to hire veterans.
I was struck when Mullen was asked to say what qualities made veterans desirable. After listing strengths like loyalty and discipline he ended with the plaintive statement: “For those who don’t know us, take a chance. It’s worth the risk.”
Mullen’s openness about veteran problems prompted me to go on a journey that began with the question: what do veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan face when they come home?
Many of the veterans I spoke to served in Vietnam and still have issues related to their service decades ago (Tom Berger of Vietnam Veterans of America told me openly “It’s been 40 years and we’re not back yet. And most of us only did 12 to 13 months”), a fact I mentioned to my editor Jim Impoco. Jim suggested looking back at data from the Vietnam era to see what that might tell us about what the future might hold.
But the more that I dug for information and data about homelessness, suicide and, ultimately, how many veterans are stuck in America’s criminal justice system, the clearer it became that a fragmentary picture was the best we could achieve on that front.
Faced with a paucity of real data, there was little choice but to talk to as many veterans, advocates and experts as possible about what happened to the veterans of Vietnam, what lessons have been learnt and what have we failed to learn.
Some 150 interviews and a much research later a picture emerged of a new generation of veterans who face many of the same challenges that Vietnam veterans did. The big difference is that while Vietnam veterans chalk their experiences down to America’s hostility to that particular war (Bob Adams, who runs the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, a Chicago suburb, told me that “in the Vietnam era, the American people confused the warrior with the war”), this time round Americans are simply not paying attention to what is going on.
On the road, above all to Forest City, Iowa, to spend two days with the Jordal family who have served America for generations, I was struck by how far away Iraq and Afghanistan are for most of this country (especially driving in early October through the golden cornfields of Iowa). Less than 1 percent of the population has served in these two countries and many people have no contact with either war or their human impact.
On the other hand, for those who have served, often again and again and again and again, the toll has been disproportionately heavy.
The encouraging part of this story was that there are plenty of veterans’ advocates out there who care trying to avoid a repeat of history and ensure a brighter future for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan than their predecessors in the Vietnam era.
But again and again, throughout those interviews over the weeks, it also became clear that unless more of the American population steps up to help their veterans, history may well be repeated.
For a multimedia PDF version of the special report, click here.