By the end of this year, the White House will reportedly have finally brought home a third of the 7,500 troops still stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq (against the advice of President Trump’s own military leaders). While there have been stories galore about the global security implications of this plan, there has been almost no discussion at all about where those 2,700 or so troops who have served in this country’s endless wars will settle once their feet touch US soil (assuming, that is, that they aren’t just moved to less controversial garrisons elsewhere in the Greater Middle East), no less who’s likely to provide them with badly needed financial, logistical, and emotional support as they age.
When it comes to honoring active-duty troops and veterans of this country’s forever wars, we Americans have proven big on symbolic gestures, but small on action. Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s organization, Joining Forces, was a short-lived but notable exception: Its advocacy and awareness-raising led dozens of companies to commit to hiring more veterans. Unfortunately, those efforts proved limited in scope and didn’t last long.
Zoom out to the rest of America and you’ll find yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on gas-guzzling SUVs galore; tons of “support our troops” Facebook memes on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day regularly featuring (at least before the pandemic struck big time) young, attractive heterosexual families hugging at reunions; and there is invariably a chorus of “thank you for your service” when a veteran or active-duty soldier appears in public.
In practical terms, though, this adds up to nothing. Bumper stickers don’t watch soldiers’ kids while they’re gone, nor do they transport those troops to competent, affordable specialists to meet their health and vocational needs when they return from battle. Memes don’t power vets through decades of rehabilitation from traumatic brain injuries, limbs blown off by homemade explosives, depression, anxiety, and grief for comrades lost.
I’m the spouse of a US naval officer. My husband has served on two different submarines and in three military policymaking positions over the course of our decade together. We’ve had to move around the country four times (an exceedingly modest number compared with most military families we know). We have dual incomes, as well as extended family and friends with the means to support us with care for our two young children and help us with the extra expenses when that uprooting moment arrives every two or three years. We have self-advocacy skills and the resources necessary to find the best possible health providers to help us weather the strain that goes with the relentless pace of post-9/11 military life.
And yet I feel I can speak for other military families who have so much less for one reason: I’ve dedicated much of my career to research and advocacy on behalf of people affected by the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve focused my attention, in particular, on the vast loss of life, both abroad and at home, caused by those wars, on decimated and depleted health care systems (including our own), and on the burdens borne by the families of soldiers who have to struggle to deal with the needs of those who return.
Troops from our current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa are, in certain ways, unique compared to earlier generations of American military personnel. More than half of them have deployed more than once to those battle zones—often numerous times. Over a million of them now have disability claims with the Veterans Affairs Department and far more disabled veterans than in the past have chronic injuries and illnesses that they will live with, not die from. Among troops like my spouse who, as a naval officer, has never deployed to Iraqi or Afghan soil, days have grown longer and more stressful due to a distinctly overstretched military that often lacks the up-to-date equipment to work safely.
And mind you, the costs of caring for the soldiers who have been deployed in our never-ending wars won’t peak for another 30 to 40 years, as they age, and the government isn’t faintly ready to meet the expenses that will be involved.
And mind you, the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are even less prepared to care for the families of their troops and veterans, those most likely to be tasked with their round-the-clock care.
Among the many grim possibilities from my own experience and the stories I’ve been told as an advocate over the years by military veterans, military spouses, and military children, let me try to paint just one picture of what it’s like when a member of that military returns home from deployment: Imagine your spouse suddenly walking through the door after months away. His face is a greenish hue from fatigue and fear. He may tell you some horror story about some set of incidents that occurred while he was deployed and indicate that he fears, given his state, he might even be out of a job soon. You think about the work you cut back on in the months since he left because you couldn’t handle the 24/7 demands of caring for confused children who had stopped sleeping. What will you do to support the family if his worst fears come to pass?
You need to remind him that, while he’s been rattling on, there are children present whom he has yet to greet. He hugs them now, his face a combination of love and lack-of-recognition (given how they’ve grown in the months since he’s been gone). The kids’ facial expressions are a mirror image of his.
You do your best to catch him up on the changes that have taken place in his absence: the kids’ latest developments, your new work schedule, the need for more child care support, and the problems of your extended family (including the terminal illness of a family member).
Family or friends want to swoop in and take the kids so the two of you can get away, yet after months of his silence, you’re feeling too confused to want that yet. What’s more, your own hard-earned role as head of the household is suddenly about to be subsumed by his needs. (After all, he’s used to telling others what to do.)
You try to call other spouses who were your lifeline while all your husbands were deployed together, but they’re as stressed out and preoccupied as you are. Even the other commanders’ wives are, like you, up far too often at night as their spouses accept calls about drunk driving, partner violence, suicide threats, and child abuse within the stressed-out command.
Your unnerved husband is helping deal with such events, counseling those still on duty, and you’re counseling him. One night, he tells you that part of the reason for his stress is the things he was asked to do by his war-traumatized commander while he was deployed. These stories keep you awake at night.
You suggest he see a mental health professional. After all, the base has licensed psychologists and psychiatrists on staff, ready to help. He reminds you that the decision to seek care is not private in the military and the stigma among those handling his promotions could cost him his career.
So you look for mental-health assistance yourself to deal with the stress and grief over your changed relationship with your spouse. The lone practitioner within 45 miles who accepts military insurance tells you that, to receive care, you must sign a contract accepting that you can be hospitalized at his discretion “because military spouses go psychotic during their husband’s deployments.” You walk away.
Child care support of some kind is needed more than ever now that your spouse is in such distress. Because you moved posts recently by military order, the Navy tells you that you’re at the back of the local line for financial child care assistance. You’re in your own hell on earth and in that you’re typical of so many other military spouses.
Perspectives on Service From a Coastal Elite
And you also turn your gaze to the citizenry of this country that, in the world of the “All Volunteer” military, generally ignores us. Before I became a military spouse, I grew up in an affluent part of New Jersey. I remember how war veterans were ignored or even mocked (including by me). In the 1990s, I used to vacation at the Jersey shore and sometimes, from the front porch of our house, my family and I would catch a glimpse of a middle-aged man in military uniform, marching like a metronome up and down the island’s main boulevard. The glazed, far-off look on his face with its telltale ruddiness signaled, I know now, someone who probably drank too much, too often. Back then, we would just refer to him as “the soldier” when he passed and laugh at him, once safely out of earshot.
Of course, he was undoubtedly suffering from some form of mental illness without the sort of care that might have helped him make sense of things. My family and I had no idea that it was normal for war-traumatized soldiers to have difficulty distinguishing the past from the present, that it wouldn’t have been strange for him to see lines of summertime beach traffic and think “convoy” or hear a car engine backfire and think “sniper!”
Later, when I was living in San Francisco, a friend who worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development told me about a veteran of the Afghan War, on leave between deployments, who called their office to request that a military tent village be set up in a popular city park to house homeless and mentally ill veterans like himself. My friend and I laughed about that over drinks, imagining the eyesore of an instant military base suddenly arising in the middle of a popular San Francisco tourist destination.
Some 15 years later, I think: How appropriate it would have been to remind Americans having fun of just what they were invariably missing—their military and the forever wars that go with them that all of us pay for endlessly but ignore. Maybe it finally is time to create spaces meant for US troops and veterans right in the middle of everything.
A Task List
President-elect Biden, I’m hoping against hope that you’ll read these thoughts of mine and take steps to support such priorities when you take office, so that our soldiers and our veterans don’t find themselves in ever deeper holes as their service ends:
1. Give those who serve and military veterans, as well as their families, real choices about where to go to get health care, whether primary care, physical therapy, specialized surgery, psychological therapy, or dental care. The Veterans Choice Program, first rolled out in 2014, should have been a decent start in expanding that sort of access, but in practice few providers have received authorization to participate because of low reimbursement rates and excessive wait times for approval and reimbursement. Anything your administration could do, including ensuring that there’s just one less form to fill out or a few more dollars in reimbursement, would make a difference.
2. Sponsor large-scale studies on the health of military spouses and children. Evidence of the effects of military life on such families is scattered at best, but doesn’t look good, particularly during and immediately after deployments. The needs of spouses and children who deal with veterans for health care, vocational training, and protection from family violence appear high and badly unmet.
3. Advocate making training on the issues faced by our troops and their families central to continuing education requirements among health care providers and the staff supporting them, especially the military insurance contractors who are the gatekeepers to care. Urge such providers to place veterans and their families first in line. Make sure therapists, including those focused on children and adolescents, know about the special challenges faced by military kids after parents return. Fund and support off-base family therapy for soldiers and their families, since Department of Defense therapists too often prioritize the needs of the soldier or of the mission above the needs of the family.
4. Teach everyone to stop “thanking” the troops for their service, which effectively ends any conversation instead of beginning one. Teach them instead to ask about what service in the US military in the forever-war era is really like. Believe me, that would start a conversation that wouldn’t end soon.
5. Remove needless barriers to military families receiving child care, whether they’re active duty and awaiting their next assignment or settling for good in communities where they’ll begin their lives as civilians.
Nothing About Us Without Us
In all such things, take your cues from soldiers, veterans, and their families. Nationally, what about creating a presidential commission that represents such groups in equal measure and in as diverse a way as possible? Let it investigate violations of the rights of military personnel and their families when it comes to health and safety in military commands and on bases across the country and around the world.
Often when I talk about changes like these, I’m met with skeptical looks from family members and friends. Where will we get the money for such changes, since we’re already reimbursing providers at higher rates for accepting military insurance?
The striking thing is that there’s no ceiling when it comes to putting money into disastrous weapons systems, the US nuclear arsenal, or the Pentagon generally. But when it comes to putting money into us, it’s another matter entirely.
How about, as a start, cutting down on waste and fraud? Money that could have done us some good has disappeared into gas stations in the middle of nowhere and other corrupt construction projects in our distant war zones. Tens of millions of dollars or more have been lost to waste and fraud in some of those unfinished foreign reconstruction projects. As economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier has pointed out, US federal defense spending accounts for more than half of all of our government’s discretionary spending, with piles of taxpayer dollars going to expensive contractors who provide services like cleaning, meals, and security guards on bases in those same war zones. Instead of spending $100 more on a single bag of laundry in Iraq, how about spending it on a therapy session for a veteran struggling with postwar trauma here at home?
It’s long past time to end America’s fruitless post-9/11 wars. But if we don’t start reexamining our basic priorities, bringing our troops “home” will just create a new crisis, involving what, in the long run, will be millions of sick, grieving, and injured Americans who will lack the safety net of adequate health care.
Please remember, President-elect Biden: war, even failed war, shouldn’t be about sacrifice by the military alone but by all of us.