Take Care of Veterans, Whatever It Takes

Eight years ago this week the first Marine died in the war in Iraq.

James, a private, grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school. He was assigned to an infantry unit and sent to northern Kuwait to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Feeling depressed and overwhelmed, he walked into a plastic porta-john at the edge of base camp, chambered a single round in his M16, and shot himself in the head. He was 19 years old.

I never met James and I didn't know him. But we served in the same battalion of light armored vehicles and I was thirty yards away from that porta-john. I remember hearing the shrill crack of a single rifle shot and I remember seeing his blood gush from beneath the door of the porta-john, forming a dark crimson pool in the Kuwaiti sand.

War is ugly and harsh and painful. War stories, especially the true ones, should remind us of the terrible toll that war inflicts on young men and women.

Today there are no monuments to James, no scholarships in his honor, no schools named after him. He died in Iraq but he didn't die in combat. We, as a nation, don't really know how to deal with the increasing numbers of veterans who struggle with the invisible wounds of war - post traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and traumatic brain injury.

The terrible reality, of course, is that war rages on for the veteran long after he or she has come home. The statistics are sobering. The military lost more troops to suicide in 2009 and 2010 than it has lost to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the country's largest Army base, Fort Hood in Texas, 22 soldiers committed suicide in 2010. And a recent study found that female veterans commit suicide at three times the rate of young women who have not served in the military.

These young men and women are not cowards. They served their country with honor and distinction. They and their families made enormous sacrifices. And the struggles faced by today's generation of young veterans are no different than the challenges faced by veterans of previous wars. Readers of the bestselling new book Unbroken, for example, will recognize the terrible symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that Louis Zamperini struggled with after coming home from World War II. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that more than 6,000 veterans commit suicide every year. That is an average of 18 veterans every day. The vast majority of these suicides are committed by older veterans who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War.

I spent eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve and I served in Iraq 2003 as part of the initial invasion. I love the Corps and am proud to have served my country. But I am deeply troubled by the haunting feeling that most Americans have moved on. The wars are no longer an interest or a priority - even though our young men and women continue to fight them, continue to die, and continue to struggle with the transition to normal, civilian life when they come home.

I believe our country learned an important lesson from the war in Vietnam. Today nobody blames the soldier, nobody calls him names, nobody spits on him. But I fear that we have yet to learn the lesson of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: we cannot allow ourselves to lose interest in the soldier and the veteran even if we have lost interest in the war. We sent them to war and we have a sacred obligation to take care of them when they come home.

After James died, I remember that our platoon sergeant quickly gathered us together. "There are two ways we can talk about this," he said. "We can be hard-ass and we can say that suicide is selfish and cowardly and we can move on." He paused and looked each one of us in the eyes. "Or, we can deal with this. If any one of you is feeling that way, if any one of you is considering doing that, let me know and I will get you help."

It was an extraordinary moment of leadership. Like a good platoon sergeant, he was determined to take care of his Marines, whatever that meant.

Today our country needs to follow his example and take care of our veterans, whatever they need, whatever it takes.

Matthew Boulay served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve from 1997 to 2005. Today he leads a national education organization and lives in Salem, OR with his wife and two daughters.