It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since American troops first arrived in Afghanistan, and nine years since the beginning of the war in Iraq. That’s a decade of war fighting, in which young Americans have been subjected to the most trying conditions imaginable.
Do the American people truly understand and value what the members of our armed forces and their families have endured? I sometimes fear that, with the passage of years, the wars have become little more than background noise in the lives of Americans.
As I write this, nearly 6,500 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and associated actions. For every one of those killed, there is a mother, a father, a family member or a friend who has suffered deeply for the loss. For them, that loss is a wound that never heals.
That truth is worth reflecting upon as we observe Memorial Day this year. While it seems like so many of our fellow Americans have “moved on” from the wars overseas, military families continue to struggle with the challenges of loss and, for those returning home, post-war adjustment. Their struggle deserves our reflection and our gratitude.
It seems our nation’s political class has forgotten this lesson, to judge by how swiftly and easily the efforts of our men and women in uniform become transmuted into political fodder in a campaign season. A case in point: Earlier this month, the presidential campaigns engaged in a heated dispute over who “deserves credit” for the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.
The answer should be a no-brainer — the credit should go to the Navy SEALs who placed their lives on the line in undertaking a dangerous mission. We may never know the names of those who carried out the raid on bin Laden’s compound, but we know enough to honor their achievement, which brought justice for the slaughter of innocents and made the world a safer place.
Of course, that achievement and so many others have come at a cost. The strain on our military personnel and their families has been unimaginable. I know — my own son served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a blessing that he has returned home to us safe, sound and strong. Many other mothers of warriors have not been so fortunate.
For the warriors who are returning home, further challenges await them and their families. The wounded struggle to overcome their injuries; some will struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of their service. Most will make the adjustment to normal life with courage and grace.
Many of these men and women, preparing to pick up their careers as a productive part of the civilian workforce, are returning home to a job market that is decidedly unfriendly to veterans. Unemployment among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is significantly higher than for the population at large, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2011, according to the BLS, returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experienced an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent, compared to a national unemployment rate of 8.9 percent that same year. Many employers, uncertain of how a veteran’s skills will translate to the workplace or fearing additional deployments, appear hesitant to hire warriors.
The fact is that our warriors and their families have a long way to go to returning to a normal life. We can and we must do better at helping them make the adjustment.
Let’s start now by remembering to honor their service. This Memorial Day, let the warriors and their families know that you are thinking of them. Let them know that you are grateful for all they have sacrificed for their nation. For those who have lost a loved one, let them know that while you can never fully share their pain and loss, they are in your thoughts and prayers.
We owe them a debt we can never fully repay.
Beverly T. Perlson is a member of the Concerned Veterans for America’s advisory committee and the founder of Band of Mothers, an organization created to “garner support and respect” for our men and women in uniform.