- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This Veterans Day, let’s not forget that while many of our soldiers are no longer in combat in Iraq, more than 50,000 servicemen remain in harm’s way there and twice as many are still in combat operations in Afghanistan. Many experience improvised explosive devices, snipers and tense negotiations with local leaders on a daily basis. When they return home, they face equally difficult challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and recovering from injuries sustained overseas. For military personnel, war is part of everyday life, and it is our duty as Americans to ensure they receive the support they need long after they return home.

Although our troops in Iraq are not involved in direct combat operations, the risks our soldiers continue to face there are similar in many ways. Their environment continues to include the potential for attack and injury, high-stress situations and prolonged time away from home. U.S. special operations troops continue, in partnership with Iraqi forces, to conduct counterterrorism raids against insurgent groups. Further, Iraqi forces are still largely dependent on the United States for air support, artillery and medical assistance.

Meanwhile, many of the combat troops that are leaving Iraq are not coming home. Instead, they are heading to Afghanistan, where we are ramping up war efforts. Nearly 100,000 soldiers are in combat operations there, and another 100,000 provide support in countries neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan or on the high seas. The risks in Afghanistan are different from those in Iraq. In many cases, they involve more dangerous missions and more difficult terrain. Most military experts agree that we will not be able to leave Afghanistan in significant numbers for years to come without catastrophic consequences, which means the mission for our troops is effectively open-ended.

More than 30,000 soldiers have been wounded to date in combat operations in both theaters. Many will need a lifetime of care on behalf of a grateful nation. Veterans who return home with injuries will struggle to relearn everyday tasks. Those who watched their friends die in combat will work to overcome their own trauma. Their families, whose lives were put on hold while they served, will face additional challenges reuniting with their loved ones.

It can be hard in these times of economic difficulty for Americans to remember all this. But when our attention turns only to problems such as the recession and unemployment, we run the risk of forgetting the needs of our soldiers who continue to serve so that we may be free. They have knowingly accepted the physical and mental risks associated with serving in the military, but they have done that on the assumption that their country will be there for them in their hour of need. In a sense, then, the greatest risk for these soldiers may be that they will be forgotten.

As long as we remain a stalwart for freedom in the world, our service members will continue to be at risk. For those of us at home, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are there for our returning service members and their families. The U.S. government has substantially increased the budgets of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and devoted ever-increasing resources to injured military. Yet the long-term nature of the challenges facing our veterans requires that we also do our part by making a commitment to serving them and their families. There are several ways you can help. If you know a military family in need, regularly ask if there is anything you can do to help. If you are planning your end-of-year tax donation, consider supporting a nonprofit organization working to meet the ongoing needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, tell your local officials that supporting veterans is a priority to you as a voter.

As time goes on, it is easy to forget the sacrifices of those who served and continue to protect our nation. So this Veterans Day, let us not forget how our soldiers will continue dealing with the effects of their service, including recovering from injuries, managing combat stress and repairing financial and familial strain. What the brave members of our military will remember most in years to come is how well their fellow citizens treated them when they returned.

James Schenck is president of the PenFed Foundation and a former U.S. Army aviation officer.

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