- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Ask most Americans about military veterans, and they will say they are thankful for the veterans’ service. They cite the sacrifice and perseverance of veterans in difficult times. They want to remember those who have fallen and help those who lived - especially those wounded in battle. But often, they don’t know how. As a nation, we are still learning how to do this.

Last month, President Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam-era airman who died in Laos and a Special Forces soldier who gave his life more recently in Afghanistan. Both were lost shielding their comrades; both were courageous beyond words. They were honored in the presence of their families and of their brothers-in-arms. But of equal importance to these ceremonies of recognition for our heroic dead are our efforts to recognize and honor veterans living today.

Veterans face many challenges. Principal among them is the adjustment back to civilian life. Some may struggle to recover from life-altering wounds, suffer the pain of multiple surgeries or wrestle with the hidden wounds of depression and despair. Others who survive combat unscathed may feel guilty about the loss of comrades who did not return home.

After decades of wars, we know many things about how to deal effectively with these challenges. We know that our veterans often get the best help close at hand: the parent who gives up a job to be a full-time caregiver; the friend of a World War II Suribachi Marine who hitchhikes 1,300 miles to tell the family of a fellow veteran their son’s final story.

We know that veterans need to support each other. Like the next generation of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, known as the Walking Dead, who returned to Vietnam to build libraries and renew bonds of service. Or the famed Tiger Survivors of the Korean War who have organized well-attended reunions - especially this year, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. And the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn veterans who find recognition and support from fellow warriors by blogging and social networking - the virtual equivalents of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts for the World War II generation - and by encouraging fellow veterans to use their GI Bill benefits to attend colleges and universities across America.

We know that nongovernmental organizations help our veterans as well. Organizations like the all-volunteer force of mental health professionals of Give an Hour and the New Dawn, whose volunteers sit by hospital beds and care for bewildered children during their parents’ surgeries and rehabilitation. And the coordinated work of dozens of veterans service organizations and advocacy groups across the country dedicated to doing good work, confronting important policy issues and ensuring adequate funding for programs.

It also happens in the halls of federal, state and community governments charged with caring for those who have borne the battle - most notably, the Department of Veterans Affairs, where more than 300,000 employees go to work every day to provide quality health care, conduct sophisticated research and development and deliver earned benefits to our nation’s veterans.

We have learned that we must build a web of support through families, communities, organizations and government. We have learned that our veterans must not walk this road alone, that everyone has a part to play. We have learned that while there are too few opportunities for all Americans to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices our veterans have made, we must work together toward closing the gap. From the resolute action of individual families and volunteers to that of local, state and federal employees who provide health care and services and to every American citizen who takes a moment to say thank you and remember one of our nation’s more than 23 million veterans, everyone has an obligation.

Our country is still finding a way to recognize, care for and support veterans. We still have much to understand and a lot of hard work to do: from dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder of a Vietnam veteran who, when asked when he was last in Vietnam, replied that he is there each night while sleeping, to helping diagnose and heal traumatic brain injuries incurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is why both political parties agree on the need for services and benefits for veterans of all eras, why the living honor the dead in time-honored tradition at our nation’s cemeteries and why, as citizens of the United States of America, we have a solemn obligation to express the gratitude and appreciation we feel for our freedom and the veterans who have helped us earn and keep it.

W. Scott Gould is deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and a Navy veteran.

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