By Kenneth Kowald
The flags and the marchers will be gone. The music will fade away. The spectators will leave.
Another Veterans Day will have been observed in many neighborhoods in Queens. Once the occasion for remembrance of those fallen in World War I, it now commemorates all those who fought for our country.
But we do not honor these men and women properly if we ignore the plight of those who have returned from war, wounded in body and spirit, subject to unemployment even beyond the “normal” rate. The measure of Americans’ response to the sacrifice of those we sent into battle is what we do for the veterans in the days, months and years ahead for them.
This is not a matter of argument about whether a specific combat was “good,” “unjust” or “necessary” or not. It is about the responsibility of us all as we recognize the toll warfare has taken on hundreds of thousands of our young people.
As I have mentioned before, we know dozens of Queens residents have died in combat. Probably thousands more of our neighbors live with the wounds of battle.
It has been estimated that some 300,000 veterans have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. The number of unprocessed claims of veterans for disabilities stood at more than 400,000 in July. The average time for processing those claims is more than 160 days, almost half a year.
In recent studies, post-traumatic stress disorders have been attributed to repeat deployments, the confusing nature of the two wars being fought, diminishing public support and reduced troop morale. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to make it easier for veterans to seek compensation for these problems. The U.S. Army is planning to require all 1.1 million of its soldiers to take intensive training in emotional resilience.
In late September, the VA began issuing payments under the new GI bill to veterans in colleges. These had been badly delayed and the students were taking out loans, putting off buying textbooks and dipping into savings.
Almost every day brings another story about the effects of the aftermath on our young men and women who have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, we are not doing what we should be doing to help those we sent into battle.
Walt Whitman, in what to me is the greatest poem this country has produced — “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” his majestic threnody on the death of Abraham Lincoln — pictured the aftermath of battle for those still alive:
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remained suffer’d.
The observances honoring the veterans will be over not long after you read this. Now we must properly honor the men and women who remain, especially those who have suffered.
It is a duty all Americans owe to those we have sent into battle to protect us. Our gestures of support cannot — must not — be limited to a day once a year.