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James Wright

Honoring veterans

LAST WEEK, the new Ken Burns series on World War II aired on public television around the country. As we remember that generation and all it accomplished, let us not forget our current generation of veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I fear, in the midst of the debate over troop levels, exit strategies, and assessment of the war's progress, we have lost sight of the men and women who are fighting this war. To be sure, there is deference to them, but too often they are seen as abstractions, as numbers and not individuals, as heroes or helpless pawns. Those who gave their lives are remembered for but a moment, except in their hometowns. Those who have been seriously injured seldom even have the moment.

In early August I visited Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Fifty years ago, as a 17-year-old Marine, I had suffered a minor injury during boot camp and spent a few days at Balboa.

Nothing looked familiar but the overall experience was similar to the ones I had a few weeks earlier at Walter Reed and Bethesda hospitals: experiences that were both inspiring and overwhelming. Over the last two years I have made multiple visits to military hospitals to talk to wounded veterans about their experiences and hopes.

So as we talk about exit strategies, let's be sure that we address in a far more engaged way those whose exits will be aboard medical evacuation aircraft. Predictably we will forget about them soon after the war is over - most will slip back into the anonymity of their lives, and, as far as many are concerned, happily so.

However, the education and rehabilitation programs provided by the government to enable veterans to make that transition need to be enhanced significantly. It is time for a new GI Bill. This is a national debt - and a wise national investment.

The difficulties and conditions at Walter Reed stem from a simple set of facts: We misjudged the duration of the conflict and the number of troops it would require, and the extent of the casualties we would sustain.

While debate about who voted how four years ago and projections about who would withdraw at what pace are important, they surely have little impact on the treatment of veterans. The medical and military officials at the hospitals I have visited care deeply about their patients, but they are overwhelmed by the numbers of casualties and are struggling to address the shortcomings highlighted last year. The Dole-Shalala Committee recommended much-needed changes in veterans' treatment. But problems remain. I spoke to a young Marine several days ago who is waiting for a wheelchair.

Improvements in body armor have ensured that more casualties survive. However, though vital organs are protected, limbs are vulnerable and head injuries are nearly epidemic. I have listened to young soldiers and Marines, as fluids seeped through their stumps of limbs, explain how they first learned their leg or arm was not there; to a National Guard single mother with cognitive impairment who missed her three children; to a mother wiping the head of a son who could not respond even as she assured him he would be fine; to a father, with his hand on the shoulder of his son in a wheelchair, who acknowledged that the family had lost everything to Katrina, "but my boy is alive and I now know what is important in life."

The wounded veterans are real people - not objects of condescending sympathy nor abstracted heroes. They don't consider themselves heroic. (For the most part, they simply want to get on with their lives.) I have rarely heard them express anger or blame. Clinically, many will suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but young men in the military are not likely to admit to being depressed, nervous, or scared. As one young man who had lost both legs up to his torso said with an embarrassed grin, "I was depressed for a while, but now I have got over it." He said he suffered his injuries 10 days before.

Remember that the GI Bill at the conclusion of WWII enabled that generation to contribute to society. Let us focus as well on the sacrifices, needs, and the remarkable potential of this generation of veterans.

James Wright is president of Dartmouth College.

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