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The price of war

November 15, 2012

On Sunday, we honored America’s 22 million veterans. Nine million of these are 65 and older, veterans of long-ago wars. Another nine million are between 18 and 64. Now, our newest generation of veterans—2.4 million Americans who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan—are arriving back home to face many challenges. Far too many will not get all the help they need and, considering their sacrifices, certainly not all that they are owed.

Today an estimated one third of all homeless people in the U.S. are veterans, as are one fifth of all suicide victims. The institutions that are supposed to help meet the needs of these returning warriors—the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs—are overwhelmed, a condition acknowledged not long ago by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

Our veterans deserve better. Many will have trouble finding jobs; the unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is around 10%, well above the national average. In addition, war has left many with physical and/or mental wounds. It is estimated that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) affect one in five veterans of these two present-day wars.

Armistice Day, the predecessor of Veterans Day, commemorated the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” We mark the date November 11th because on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 that war’s ceasefire began. World War I claimed 8.5 million military lives worldwide with another 21 million wounded, including U.S. casualties of 53,500 deaths and 63,200 wounded. Back then, soldiers who suffered from emotional or mental problems were described as “shell shocked” because it was believed that the blast impact of exploding shells produced a concussion that disrupted the physiology of the brain. Those who returned from World War I came to be known as the Lost Generation and each war since then has seen its own numbers of the lost. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be no exception.

Nearly 100 years later, we still do not fully understand how shock waves that ripple through a soldier’s brain from an exploding bomb may result in lasting mental or physical harm. What we do know is that traumatic brain injuries—both physical damage from shrapnel and concussive injury—are considered the “signature wound” of soldiers coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is because the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) or roadside bomb has been a major weapon against our troops.)