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Originally published Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 9:05 PM

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Commission touted to bridge gap between military, civilians

Karl Marlantes, a former Marine and a decorated Vietnam veteran from Woodinville, wants Congress to establish a commission that would help the country acknowledge the psychic toll from its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — As a decorated Vietnam veteran, Karl Marlantes understands the grim costs of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as anyone: at least 6,699 U.S. military personnel dead, more than 50,000 wounded and $2 trillion in borrowed spending, with the total long-term tab expected to double or triple that.

But the former Marine from Woodinville believes the country has avoided acknowledging the psychic toll from two of its longest wars. And he would like a full reckoning.

On Wednesday, Marlantes came to Capitol Hill to appeal for the creation of a new presidential commission he hopes will help with collective healing. He envisions The Commission on America and its Veterans as a vehicle for a national dialogue between millions of volunteer troops who went to war and the society that sent them to fight.

“It’s about sharing the burden,” Marlantes said.

Among those who joined Marlantes at the news conference was U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, who introduced a bill in March to set up the veterans commission. In recent years, such blue-ribbon task forces have been convened to address issues ranging from federal deficit reduction to America’s nuclear future.

The idea was borne more than a year ago from conversations between Marlantes and Sebastian Junger, author and war journalist who co-directed the 2010 documentary “Restrepo.” The film chronicled the war with an Army platoon at a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Junger said too many veterans return from combat to wage another battle at home, struggling against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal thoughts, alcoholism and other issues. Few civilians, Junger said, truly grasp the moral ambiguity of the soldiers’ experience, leaving them feeling isolated.

“This is how this society needs to own (the war) morally, emotionally and spiritually,” Junger said of establishing the commission. “But no one wants to have that conversation.”

Junger said soldiers would welcome that dialogue.

“The veterans I’ve talked to are like, ‘Thank God,’ ” he said.

McDermott, who as a U.S. Navy Medical Corps psychiatrist treated sailors and Marines during the Vietnam War, likened the veterans commission as a form of civic penance.

“War changes you,” McDermott said, and he thinks the soldiers deserve a chance to be heard and to unburden themselves.

McDermott’s bill is co-sponsored by 17 Democrats and Republicans.

The legislation says the 18-member bipartisan commission would report on ceremonies and events to recognize heroism and sacrifice of veterans of recent wars, and look at any shortcomings in how the nation welcomes back service members.

Marlantes, 68, said the commission would help bridge the gulf between society and the military that widened when compulsory draft ended. Few people today have family and friends in the armed forces, and fewer still know service members like Marlantes, a Yale graduate and a Rhodes scholar.

Marlantes suffered from PTSD but did not get treatment for three decades because he didn't realize he had it. He wrote about his Vietnam experience in the best-seller novel, “Matterhorn.

Congress has addressed many of the specific challenges facing returning veterans. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, for instance, has pushed for legislation to reduce sexual assaults inside the military, improve health care for women veterans and create jobs-training program for service members.

Yet those efforts have been far from adequate, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of staff of the Army, said in an interview.

Chiarelli said many troops return home physically and mentally sound. But for those who don’t, Chiarelli said, the government hasn’t been aggressive enough in finding effective treatments for traumatic brain injuries or PTSD.

Chiarelli, who had heard about the proposed veterans commission, said it could be helpful to the extent it spurs Congress to do and spend more to help veterans in need.

But when it comes treating the psychic wounds of war, Chiarelli said, the fact remains “we don’t know how to fix them.”

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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