Another Year In Iraq: Looking Back and Ahead

I was in Iraq at the start of the occupation, back in May, 2003. It's impossible to not look back and shake my head in disbelief. But I also look ahead and breathe a bit of a sigh of relief.
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As we hit another anniversary of the start of the War in Iraq, it's impossible to not look back and shake my head in disbelief. At the same time, however, I look ahead and breathe a bit of a sigh of relief.

I was in Iraq at the start of the occupation, back in May, 2003. Back then, I along with a whole lot of other guys knew that things wouldn't be as easy as the Bush administration made them out to be. After all, that's what politicians do -- paint a rosy projection. Yet, I don't think any of us felt that the situation would be so badly bungled, with tangential effects that ripped through the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs. Back then, I would have also said you were insane if you told me that we'd still be there in 2009.

That we still are, and that we were so ill-prepared for that back home, speaks volumes about the previous administration.

We went into Iraq with not enough forces, and a shortage of quality protection and equipment. That led not just to thousands of Americans killed, but many, many more coming home with injuries that most Americans never even heard of or considered, like Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). The lack of planning, or clear exit strategy, resulted in policies like Stop Loss, which kept troops on active duty involuntarily. In many cases, you came home for a very short period and turned back around to go to the war zone. Sometimes for a fourth of fifth time. Those extended and multiple deployments played a role in the thousands coming home with PTSD, and those who sent the Army suicide rate to a new record.

All these troops flooding home, and becoming veterans with complex medical and mental injuries overwhelmed the VA, which had not been prepped for the influx, leading then-Secretary Nicholson to admit to Congress that his department was underfunded by billions, and that he needed emergency funds. To this day, veterans still struggle to get care. That lack of care not only has left many veterans struggling with painful physical injuries, but also many who could not cope with the mental toll. Far too many veterans who need PTSD counseling are instead diagnosed with "adjustment disorder," which absolves the VA from treating or providing disability benefits. Homeless veterans, drug and alcohol addicted vets, crumbling marriages, and more has been the result.

So why do I look ahead with some optimism? Because we finally have a president who gets it.

President Obama's administration has increased the veterans budget by $25 billion over five years, and by $1.2 billion more than even recommended by the Independent Budget (the VA budget suggested by the nation's veterans organizations). His VA is announcing construction of new veterans hospitals and medical centers, providing more convenient and better care to veterans around the country. For all the brouhaha this past week over a proposal on VA health care which actually was never proposed by the administration, this administration already is one of the most pro-veteran ones we've ever had.

For troops, just this week, President Obama announced the end to Stop Loss. Additionally, his budget focuses more on equipment that will help better protect our troops still in the field, than on big, unnecessary weapons systems.

The reason that he can do all of this is that he recognized that there is no military solution to Iraq. To think that there is would mean just spending another 6, 10, 20, 40, 100 years in Iraq. By shifting from a military strategy to a diplomatic one, which also transfers power to the Iraqis, President Obama was able to lessen the strain on our troops. By saving the costs from endless war, he was able to put more money into taking care of our veterans.

Most significant of all, by setting forth a plan that removes troops from combat activities in 16 months, and all troops by 2011, I know that I won't have to write a 10th Anniversary Post, with troops still in Iraq.

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