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Pena: Time for a national strategy for veterans

As America prepares to celebrate another Memorial Day, it is important to remember the lessons of prior wars. There is a common thread that links all wars, and it is important that we not forget any of the wars or the soldiers who served in them.

For example, throughout the years that followed the withdrawal of combat troops from Vietnam, America generally tried to forget the Vietnam War. However, it is vitally important for the 3.1 million soldiers who served in Vietnam and to the millions more of that generation who were affected by the war that we not forget.

Yes, it is good that the American service men and women have left Iraq and are currently in the process of leaving Afghanistan, as it was good in March of 1973 that American troops left Vietnam. But the American consciousness should not stop there. We should not say to ourselves, “Now that our troops from Iraq are back home and those from Afghanistan will soon be back home, we can forget about those wars.”

Iraq was not like Vietnam because the fighting was not in jungles, napalm was not being dropped on civilians, the troops were not draftees and more than 58,000 Americans were not killed. There are, however, similarities. Young American troops were sent halfway around the world for questionable causes in wars we could not win. In both, there was a drumbeat for the necessity of war by the politicians. In both, what the politicians professed was accepted as the truth. In both, it was not.

We, as a country, cannot continue to march blindly into wars of choice. The consequences are catastrophic for our country, not only in the enormous amount of money we spend in these wars but, just as importantly, in the toll it takes individually on our troops, their families and on the military itself. The American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are different from the Vietnam War veterans in part due to the vast number of head injuries sustained, the multiple deployments endured, and the increased number of women serving. But as in Vietnam, the nightmare of war may continue long after their service is completed.

They cannot turn the war off after the 6 o’clock news like many civilians are able to do. These men and women will carry invisible scars of war with them as they try to reintegrate into society.

Many Vietnam veterans continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or addictions. Last fall, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, in the Texas Bar Blog, cited the national organization Justice for Vets as reporting that approximately 460,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or depression and another 345,000 suffer from alcohol or drug addiction.

Obtaining statistics on homelessness is difficult, but it has been estimated that approximately one-third of the adult homeless are veterans and nearly half of those are Vietnam veterans. When these young soldiers were accepted into the military and sent to war, they were not like this. Too many returned unable to forget the horrors of war and instead of being treated for their mental wounds or addictions caused by the war, they were put out on the street.

Those who deal with veterans affairs warn of a coming tsunami of serious mental conditions and suicides in the military because of the multiple deployments and stresses related to the current wars. America should not forget these veterans. The least we can do for our aging Vietnam veterans, and our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, is to take care of the injuries brought about by these wars.

On this, the 41st anniversary of the last American troops to leave Vietnam, let us honor the Vietnam veterans. Veterans and advocates Mike Haynie and Nicholas Armstrong in the New York Times call for a national strategy on veterans. The time has come for this. We owe it to the men and women who have fought and sacrificed for our country.

Pena is an Austin attorney, co-author of “Last Plane Out of Saigon,” and is a veteran who left Vietnam on the last day of the American withdrawal.

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