U.S. military must do better by soldiers returning with visible and invisible wounds
Guest columnist Mary R. Truscott, raised in a distinguished military family, is furious at the growing crisis among returning soldiers from America's past decade of war. Considering the alarming rate of suicides, she wonders, who is in charge here?
Special to The Times
I GOT on the freeway recently and merged into the middle of an Army convoy. Unlike the Vietnam-era, jungle-green camouflage that I knew as an Army brat, these trucks and soldiers were dressed in the sandy-brown tones of desert camouflage.
In 1967 when I was a kid, I got in serious trouble once for flashing the peace sign to a truck full of soldiers in Fort Riley, Kans. So I did it again, and got the same smiles and peace signs in return, just like in 1967.
As I followed the slow, clumsy trucks, I realized that everything and nothing has changed in 44 years. The military has begun "branding," and now calls soldiers "warriors." I saw no warriors on that convoy; I saw kids.
Once again, we send other people's family members to fight wars that too many of us conveniently ignore. High-tech warfare and medical care mean fewer combat deaths, and soldiers survive more severe injuries than ever before. When we build a memorial to these wars, it might be smaller, but no less heartbreaking.
I come from a military family of considerable distinction. We sent the men of our family off to wars, and we were fortunate to have them return home safely.
But my second-oldest brother served in Vietnam. He came back to "the world," as they used to say, during the peak of protests against Vietnam; people spat on soldiers and called them baby killers and worse. He came home in one piece, but he was never at peace, and the invisible wounds from that war finally took my brother from us in 2008.
So I watch with horror as we create a new generation of visibly and invisibly damaged veterans. Instead of hippies spitting on the returning veterans, our own military system proves grossly unequal to the task of respecting its own.
The suicide rate at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is shocking — 11 suspected this year.
Among them is a 25-year-old father of two whose widow believes he committed suicide to avoid a ninth deployment — another unbelievable number. She pushed their children on swings with a preternatural calm as she shared with a TV news crew her wish to have a military funeral for her husband, whose death is "under investigation."
I can vividly imagine my now-deceased father, a colonel, booming, "Who is in charge here?" The veterans in my family include my grandfather, father, uncle, cousins, and my beloved brother. I am obligated to stand up and ask — for my family, and for all of those who have served and are serving — who is in charge here?
I see "We Support Our Troops" stickers on cars. I believe people mean it, and don't want to repeat the Vietnam era and attack the soldiers who serve their country. We don't know how to support them, but we don't want to spit on them. While we civilians at least try — the military fails. Eleven suspected suicides at one base in eight months is a sign of an abject, systemic failure.
Perhaps a part of this failure stems from the "warrior" branding.
I dragged out my dad's Oxford English Dictionary. "Warrior — One whose occupation is warfare; a fighting man ... applied to ... uncivilized peoples, for whom the designation soldier would be inappropriate."
We have veterans who cannot find jobs, or who return with invisible brain injuries, or bionic prosthetics to replace lost limbs. The military builds "Warrior Transition Units," and yet — the suicide rate speaks for itself. We define these people as warriors, and then dump them back in a world that is not at war. The first step we take should be to stop this "warrior" mentality.
The recent deaths at Lewis-McChord are "investigated," which apparently takes time in the Army — they are good at killing, but not so good at figuring out death. In the meantime, they spit on the sacrifices made by a 25-year-old soldier and his family by withholding the funeral he deserves.
I am ashamed and furious. In my dad's best fearsome tradition, and with the memory of my brother always in my heart, I ask — "Who is in charge here?" and hope that others will join me until we hold the military, from the top down, and ourselves, accountable.
Mary R. Truscott lives in Bellevue. She is the granddaughter of the late Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. and the sister of the late Frances M. Truscott.
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