was many things for me: seeing people who, up to now, have only been names on my computer screen, meeting so many, many more, information, ideas and even some training, a good party, the chance to attend the first ever conference of its kind. In all, a lot of fun, worth the 300 mile drive Arizona summer heat from Phoenix to Las Vegas. YearlyKos was also my first opportunity to see and talk to this generation’s veterans. I attended a panel on Iraq Veterans on the War and Returning Home and to see The War Tapes
, the stunning documentary about Iraq combat.
The panel was organized by Paul Reickhoff, Iraq veteran and executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association
(). Panelists included Zack Bazzi, one of the New Hampshire National Guard who filmed The War Tapes, Abbie Pickett, National Guard who spent a year as a refuel logistician in Iraq, and Perry Jefferies, retired first sergeant 20 year veteran and IAVA outreach director. The four were a microcosm of America’s military serving in Iraq–young and older (none looked particularly old), men and women, officer and enlisted, Guard and Regular. I heard much that was familiar from my Vietnam service thirty-five years ago–combat has an eternal universality–and much that was wholly different.
Perhaps the most noticeable similarity was their sense of returning from the war to a nation “not at war”, the “tremendous disconnect” between the hard reality of combat and a country more concerned with celebrity babies and injured race horses. That is no different from 1971 and a war that, like Iraq, affected relatively few. Iraq veterans are as bewildered as I at the normality of life even as our own lives have been distorted by war. Returning Iraqi veterans also face a Veterans Administration ill-equipped to serve their needs. That’s no different either; the VA in the 70's was unable to deal with the mental and physical needs of Vietnam vets. Horror stories about VA hospitals, where patients had to bribe orderlies to change bedpans and dressings, made me hope I never would.
Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been promised more and the Veterans Administration has proved it can deliver. The health care that I feared in the 1970's improved dramatically in the 90's. VA facilities and capabilities are among the nation’s best. Reickhoff called it a “model” health care system that BushCheney is dismantling even as demand grows due to his wars. The entire nation claims to “support the troops” but that fine sentiment means little to the men and women who return injured only to find a VA that ignores them or places them on hold for months–as it did to Abbie Pickett–because inadequate funding. The panelists were disappointed and angry at how the nation is failing the men and women it sends to war.
Reickhoff, Bazzie, Pickett and Jefferies are not anti-war veterans, at least when they speak as IAVA representatives. The anti-war veterans are at Iraq Veterans Against the War
. IAVA’s mission is to help soldiers make the transition from combat to civilian life and to prod the nation to honor its commitment to those injured in service to their country. As for Operation Iraqi Freedom, none of the panelists spoke against it directly. Reickhoff stated that America has no good options in Iraq yet has an obligation to fix what we created. All agreed that the war is taxing our military heavily, a burden that the military will not be able to sustain. Jefferies spoke of the lost and destroyed equipment that goes unreplaced, putting soldiers at even greater risk. “You can’t spin a broken truck or a dead person,” he said. For the most part, IAVA focuses on keeping Americans informed about the full costs of indefinite war and ensuring real support for men and women making the difficult transition back to civilian life.
Their efforts are bringing timely attention to the problems that were too long ignored among Vietnam veterans, a collective amnesia that refused to acknowledge Agent Orange or post traumatic stress syndrome until veterans and their supporters forced the issue. IAVA is forcing health and welfare issues for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now. They don’t want to wait decades for service they need immediately.
A few hours later, I saw The War Tapes
. In this intimate look at Iraq combat I saw much that was similar to Vietnam: the black humor, war fought in the homes, yards and places of a civilian population, the chaos of combat, the rattle of small arms, the thud of heavy machine guns, the shock of death and injury. All too real and no different from three decades before. What is different was the sense of camaraderie among soldiers trained and deployed to Iraq as a unit instead of the constant rotation of individual soldiers who had to learn on the job in Vietnam. Also different is the Iraq veterans’ search for meaning in their war, something I neither expected nor found. Vietnam was just something that happened to me. These guys want meaning. They are right to hope for meaning because it goes some way to redeem war’s brutality. America’s World War II combatants certainly experienced much the same horror as soldiers in later wars; I’m convinced that most were able to find sufficient meaning in the war’s result to feel their sacrifices were warranted. I hope Iraq veterans will be able to do so as well. I fear the odds are against them.
Two scenes particularly moved me. I shared the pride when the company received its Combat Infantryman Badges. It reminded me how proud I was to earn mine, to prove myself in my unchosen, unexpected occupation. It puts me in good company, however, questionable my war. The company’s homecoming to New Hampshire also moved me. I don’t think it was envy at the contrast with my solitary return on a redeye flight from San Francisco to DC. I think it was seeing their joy and their families’ joy at their return, that whatever horrors lay in the past year, the soldiers were home, safe from the war. For the moment, at least. Any difficulties lay in the future. YearlyKos
gave me a chance to meet and connect with a new generation of Veterans. It helped me understand that while we share the experience of combat, our experiences are different. Our wars are different. I cannot presume that their views will reflect mine on all issues about the war and military service. What I can do is welcome them home and support their efforts to heal the wounds incurred in service to America.
And hope against the lessons of human history that they will be the last generation of American war veterans.