As military veterans, we live by the moral code of never leaving a comrade behind. This statement applies not only to combat scenarios, but to those who returned home and now suffer from mental and physical health issues following service to America.
As a Vietnam War veteran who suffered the humiliation and sense of futility after withdrawal from our war and sad treatment by many citizens, it took many years for my brothers-in-arms and I to deal with that unfortunate situation.
Over the past year, I have spoken with numerous veterans who are experiencing similar feelings following not only their service in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but while observing the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The the number of tours of duty heroes of those wars have experienced can be astounding to learn about, as is the anger of many of them following the sad withdrawal of American forces. The organization “More In Common” conducted a survey and found that 73 percent felt betrayed and 67 percent felt humiliated, 76 percent said that they sometimes “feel like a stranger in my own country.”
In an article by the Veterans Administration, Dr. Joseph Geraci discussed the impact of withdrawal from the battlefront in Afghanistan, his being well-versed on the subject after four Army deployments in combat with elite special operations, ranger, airborne and infantry units. Among other positions, he is also a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Transitioning Servicemember/Veteran and Suicide Prevention Center (TASC)
Dr. Geraci said, “Most of the veterans we see in the TASC are recently transitioned Veterans with combat experience who struggle with reintegration to civilian life. Many times, these struggles manifest as acute suicide risk, anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use, and adjustment disorder. Some of our patients are still on active duty, are on VA’s high-risk suicide list, and/or were assigned to us prior to discharge from our VA in-patient facility.”
He went on to say, “The most significant bump that post-9/11 veterans may face because of the withdrawal is they may internalize the reports of Afghanistan being described as a failure. This may make them feel unfulfilled and empty, and to perceive that their sacrifices in Afghanistan were meaningless and of no value to society and civilian leaders.
“Our identity and sense of purpose as veterans can become anchored to our good and bad experiences in the military. The lack of purpose and fulfillment can be related to symptoms of depression and PTSD severity after military service.”
Losing a soldier to invisible wounds should not be viewed any differently than losing a soldier in the field of battle and should be prevented at all costs. Again, never leading a comrade behind.
The war in Ukraine, in my opinion, has added to the mental health issues of many of our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans after their unfortunate withdrawal situation as they watch the European combat unfold in horrific scenarios and must helplessly watch the constant news of Russian atrocities upon innocent civilians and military veterans alike.
Let me tell you about a good friend of mine, a military veteran, and his experiences in the Ukrainian war that emphasize and describes what our heroes of America’s recent 20-year war are learning daily from the media or our many military sources.
Senator Tom Brewer was elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 2016, after having served six tours of duty as a highly decorated retired Army National Guard Colonel for 36 years. He was severely injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, losing his eye, suffering shrapnel wounds and now suffering from cancer.
Also, he is a member of the Lakota tribe and the first Native American elected to the state legislature of Nebraska.
As a legislator, this hero has focused on veterans issues, successfully sponsoring a bill to provide tax breaks to veterans. You can only imagine the impact upon Sen. Brewer after his combat service and observing the Ukrainian situation.
But the senator made headlines by beginning a visit this Fourth of July holiday to the Ukrainian front lines to learn firsthand about how the war was being conducted there, meeting with local officials while believing that that if the United States did not help Ukraine, then American troops would eventually be fighting Russians. He is currently on his way back home.
During his trip he has had the chance to see the destruction, death and suffering that was beyond anything he’d ever seen in person and said, “Photographs of Berlin at the end of World War II is the kind of destruction now found in Ukraine. This is not a war with insurgents and irregular guerrilla fighters launching hit-and-run ambushes with roadside bombs like the Taliban or ISIS.
“This is two very modern, uniformed militaries of countries that are both represented in the United Nations. This is a mechanized, force-on-force, combined arms death match. Girls and women are being raped. Men are being beaten, bound and shot. Mass graves are everywhere. The old and crippled and young orphans left behind in the war zone are fending for themselves.
“Russian soldiers are plundering the homes and property of Ukrainian families, stealing everything they can carry. Cities the size of Lincoln and Omaha (Nebraska) and larger are being “rubble-ed” by near constant cannon and rocket artillery fire (a very old Russian tactic).
“The Ukrainian people are among the most resilient people I have ever met. They love America. They embrace our values, and they are fighting and dying every day with a level of tenacity and valor I have never seen before. Regardless of their persistence and determination however, they cannot prevail if the free world dithers and wrings its hands. This is good versus evil.”
Good versus evil that we who suffered the humiliation and anger of withdrawals from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam must now frustratingly sit at home and observe on a minute-by-minute basis as national and local media depicts endless war and we can do nothing about it. It simply makes it harder to gain mental stability from our own service.
That is why I and many of my comrades join the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and other organizations. We are able to sit in the comfort of our facility, get needed help and bond as brothers while dealing with scenarios from our service, the result of withdrawals from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and from that being observed around-the-clock in Ukraine. We need one another in our organizations.
This is why I wrote a previous article here in the Chronicle about the needs of support for our facilities from the public, businesses and private organizations because it is so important for veterans to have a place to bond.
However, I am seriously concerned about our future, not only from a financial situation but the loss of, or failure, to obtain more membership. Frankly, though they need to do so, I do not believe here locally we will be able to fulfill sufficient membership numbers in the future to replace our old veterans by veterans from the recent war unless we change.
These new veterans do not seem to join because:
They are still fulltime employed with families to raise and do not have the hours available for a commitment to the organizations.
They have departed the area after discharge to use their GI Bill benefits to attend college, or move to areas providing better paying employment for their exceptional skills following service in uniform.
Or, sadly, they believe our veterans facilities are just a bunch of old guys sitting around a bar drinking and do not want to change. Which is the worst reason and one entirely not true.
The VFW is a perfect example of membership issues with 1.5 million members, a drop of a million from 1992, and having an average age of 67 with 400,000 members over 80. It will be difficult to quickly replace that number of aging veteran population.
Since 2001, between 1.9 and 3 million service members have served in post-9/11 war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over half of them have deployed more than once and I have seen veterans organizations attempting to gain their membership.
However, huge numbers of organizations are simply closing operations. A simple Google search using the words “VFW or American Legion Post closing” will give you an idea of it. In some areas I have seen veterans organizations merging and my opinion is that we will possibly see that in Citrus County because of the number of veterans organizations found here along with a reduction of available membership numbers as we old veterans depart earth and new ones fail to replace us.
As example, in Grand Island, Nebraska, with a population of 51,000 where I once lived nearby, there is an organization now known as the United Veterans Club that provides support for veterans by connecting them with several government agencies and nonprofit organizations at the federal, Nebraska state and Grand Island level.
These services include veteran benefits assistance, services for veterans with disabilities, and information about medical care, insurance, and education benefits. This is accomplished by a single facility which consists of the merging of the local VFW Post, American Legion Post, American Legion Riders Chapter, Order of the Purple Heart and Amvets organizations.
The United Veterans Club, despite the unfortunate merging of organizations, provides a place where veterans gather to not only get help, but to share experiences and bonding from the past while dealing with situations of today.
I certainly hope we veterans here in Citrus County will not face a similar action of merging organizations, but unless improvements in recruiting memberships, national organizational changes and perhaps changes in post operational methods are not achieved, our future may be dire.
So, once again I ask for support. For the facilities and organizations by public and businesses. And, for membership by you old and young veterans to help us help others. We need you now, not tomorrow before it is too late.
We served and sacrificed and now ask for your honor and support.
God bless America.
John Stewart is a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant and disabled Vietnam War veteran. He is Commander of VFW Post 4252 in Hernando and in 2016 was inducted into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame for his volunteer service.