by Milt Lum, Staff Writer
“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.” These familiar words from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are etched in marble on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the last Monday in May, our nation will remember all of those who have given “their last full measure of devotion.”
What of those not interred beneath that hallowed soil, the veterans bearing the life-long burdens of having served? The twenty-year conflict recently concluded in Afghanistan was sustained by a volunteer armed force of men and women involving 1% of the total population. Not only was this the longest sustained conflict in our nation’s history, it was also one waged with the smallest armed force. History has yet to assess the full impact of this conflict on our veterans and our nation. My tour of duty at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., from 2004 -2011, has provided me a modest perspective on how such a protracted conflict has affected its participants.
With a limited supply of personnel, repeated deployments of both active duty and reserve soldiers were common. During the Vietnam conflict, it was unusual to spend more than one tour overseas, unless one volunteered for a second. The draft provided a fresh set of soldiers to replace those leaving. Without a draft to supply new troops, units were called upon for multiple deployments. Each deploy- ment strained the units and took a mental and physical toll on the soldier and his/her family. The increased rate of substance abuse and suicides among soldiers was in part attributed to repeated deployments. These were also significant risk factors for divorces and child abuse within military families.
Modern warfare has blurred the lines of confrontation resulting in major collateral damage to the civilian popu- lations caught in the crossfire. Rules of war which once regarded hospitals and civilian populations “off limits” no longer exist in the modern battlefield. Civilian casual- ties are rarely tallied in assessing battlefield losses. For the soldier on the front lines, witnessing this carnage is a traumatic and an enduring nightmare.
Therapy and support may help to ameliorate the effects of this experience but will never eliminate it.
Women make up about 11% of the volunteer armed force and have proven to be a valuable asset. Deployments held special challenges for women, especially those who were single parents and saw military service as a dependable way to improve their lives and secure medical care for their children. In screening reservists for deployment, I encoun- tered senior-enlisted women, some of whom were grand- mothers, who were being deployed because their units were stretched thin and they were the most skilled in their MOS (military occupational specialty). Like their male counter- parts they were subjected to all the privations, dangers, and psychological trauma endured by being in a war-zone.
But danger also lurked within their own ranks as attested to by the reports of rapes and murder among women recruits. Women have a place in the volunteer armed force. It is vital that they are protected and allowed to perform their duties without harassment.
A volunteer armed force has been tested in the longest conflict engaged by our nation. As in the aftermath of any conflict, there will be a critical after-action analysis of its successes and failures. The generals and think tanks will undoubtedly be formulating new plans for the volunteer armed force. At its core will continue to be the disciplined and dedicated young men and women who choose to serve.
For many of those who have served in the most recent conflict and have returned damaged, the war will never be forgotten. Yes, they have been thanked for their service by thousands of citizens, a lesson we have learned from a prior conflict. Will our support continue as memories of this non- victorious conflict fade? Will these veterans receive the funds to replenish their space-age prosthetic limbs? Will they have the mental health services to heal their broken spirits? Will we be willing to investigate those mysterious ailments surfacing many years later? The answer to these questions remains to be seen.