Most everyone knows the pivotal quote from General Douglas MacArthur's farewell address, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away." The note he chose to end on in 1951 was modestly triumphant, the perfect close to the career of a consummate soldier.
He probably would have chosen his words differently had he been able to foresee the invisibility of America's veterans just twenty years later.
"For every John McCain there are thousands of wounded veterans whose stories are not known. I call them our invisible heroes," says Hilda R. Heady, Associate Vice President for Rural Health at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, West Virginia University. She has worked with rural health services veterans for over twenty years. "It's hard to recognize their needs because much of their trauma is invisible. Part of my work is to make their stories known, so we're less resentful of parting with our tax dollars to help them."
There are more in need of that help every day. The cover story of Modern Healthcare's November 5th issue, "A Hospital Too Far: Medicine Off the Battlefield," cites:
"Thirty-five percent of Iraq war veterans accessed mental health services in the year after returning home, while 12% per year were diagnosed with a mental health problem. Against this grim backdrop is an issue that has ignited debate among veterans, government officials and civilians in the healthcare industry: how the Veterans Affairs Department could improve access to healthcare services for rural veterans, who account for about 40% of the VA's patient population." There are 21 states with higher than the national average of veterans within their populations. Eighteen of these are rural states.
Because of advances in body armor and medical technology, this war will produce a higher proportion of seriously wounded, traumatized, and brain-damaged veterans than any other.
Compounding this is an expected baby boom among military personnel, meaning that the next generation, growing up in the shadow of the Iraq war, will be significantly affected as well.
Just about every factor that could ensure Iraq veterans face the same anonymity and abandonment suffered by the Vietnam generation is in place: a ridiculously bureaucratic and under funded VA, a questionable and unpopular war, a near complete lack of serious and uncensored media coverage, and a military where half or more of its servicemen and women are drawn from the most economically depressed and forgotten regions of the country.
"For rural people, serving in the military is often just a way of life," Ms. Heady adds. "Once the majority of Americans start to believe that they can count on someone else to fight their wars for them, we fall into a trap: our policies create a population of wounded, traumatized veterans, and then we resist funding the systems that support them. Our society is able to forget about its veterans because so many come from rural or poor urban areas.
"As long as we as a society choose war as a means to deal with our social, economic, and political problems, we must accept the personal responsibility to deal with its aftermath. We must support the services needed by veterans and their families, regardless of where they live, to try and make their lives as whole as possible."
Before we allow this current generation of soldiers to fade away we need to reflect on their needs. They are not only our future leaders; they are the fathers and mothers of the next generation.
Hilda R. Heady is the Associate Vice President for Rural Health at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, West Virginia University; Executive Director of the West Virginia Rural Health Education Partnerships; and Program Director of the West Virginia Area Health Education Center.