Leading an Army infantry platoon in Baghdad for a year, I was awed by the young men and women serving there. Their dedication to one another, and to their ideals of service, was extraordinary. But when I came home, I was struck by how disconnected many Americans seemed from what troops were encountering in the war zone and the issues they faced when they returned to the United States. I was infuriated to see veterans struggling every day to get the medical care they need, to overcome bureaucratic red tape, and to transition to civilian life.
Caring for millions of combat veterans and their families will be one of America’s greatest challenges in a generation, but throughout the history of this country, people of faith have responded to crisis with love, compassion, and determination. For a country starkly polarized by this war, the church is one place where we can come together and pledge to love those who fought in it.
One of the wounded is my friend Army Spc. Wendell McLeod. McLeod’s head and back were badly injured when he was serving near the Iraqi border in Kuwait in 2005. McLeod was a sharp, jovial man from South Carolina who took great pride in his strength and independence. As a result of his injuries, however, his memory and mood have changed dramatically—and so has his life. He can no longer perform even simple tasks, such as brushing his teeth, unaided. His incredibly compassionate and dedicated wife, Annette, has said, “Now I’m married to a man I no longer know.” McLeod’s horrific experience has extended far beyond his physical wounds. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, his injury was misdiagnosed; it took a year and a congressional investigation to get him the help he needed.
IT TURNED OUT that McLeod had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), often called the signature injury of the Iraq war. TBI has affected hundreds of thousands of troops and is what ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff suffered when he was hit by a roadside bomb while reporting in Iraq in January 2006. The malady is caused when roadside bombs or mortar explosions cause a person’s brain to hit the inside of the skull. This impact can lead to emotional problems, vision or hearing difficulties, memory loss, and—in the most severe cases—brain damage. TBI is invisible and often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
Many troops are also suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are exposed in this war to terrifying things that take a terrible toll. At least one-third of Iraq veterans will face PTSD or another mental health problem. If left untreated, the mental health effects of combat can lead to unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, and even suicide.
Veterans’ families also suffer and, in many cases, are being torn apart. A high percentage of married U.S. troops in Iraq say their marriages are headed toward divorce; 2,200 U.S. children have lost a parent in Afghanistan or Iraq. New studies suggest that deployments have also led to a dramatic increase in the rates of child abuse in military families.
Americans can open their hearts, open their homes, and lend a hand. We can support this new generation of veterans by volunteering our time, donating money, or reaching out to a local military family in need. Offering to baby-sit for children in a family where a parent is deployed, or shoveling snow in a wounded veteran’s driveway, can make a big difference to a family under great strain.
Our country’s newest generation of veterans needs our help and compassion, and it is up to each of us to provide that. Democrat or Republican, young or old, it doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against the war. We all have a moral obligation to care for the troops who fought in it.
Paul Rieckhoff is the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to improve the lives of the U.S.’s newest generation of veterans and their families. Rieckhoff is the author of Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective.