My turn: As war continues, two Americas emerge

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008

There are two Americas in our ongoing wars; the professional soldiers and their families and the rest of us doing our routine business.

Not since World War II has America had to connect their daily life with an all-out war. How many of us woke up today said: "Yes, we are still at war and I know what is expected of me to end it sooner"?

I'm not a veteran, but I come from a family of veterans. Both my parents were in World War II. My dad was a wounded prisoners of war and my mother an Army nurse. By the time Dad was in prison camp, a brother had been killed and another was missing-in-action. So every day when my grandmother woke up she knew first-hand that she was at war. The sacrifices were obvious and indifference by others was not tolerated. There was one America not two.

It is easy to fault the Bush administration with its sanitized the coverage of the wars. Rather than being asking to sacrifice, we got a tax cut. Instead of facing domestic program cuts, we put the cost of the war on credit. We know that combat stress leads to mental health problems, but idly watch as veterans are forced into second or third tours of duty.

That is what an all-volunteer army is all about. We witness the exceptional field care of wounded soldiers but then tolerate treatment facilities in the U.S. where conditions are disgraceful. And, now the president is vetoing new veteran's benefits. While one America is making the real sacrifices the other America finds it easier than ever to turn a blind eye.

But in all honesty, the problem is not just another Bush administration failed policy. Not unlike today, I did not experience one America during my generation's war in Vietnam. I never had to go to a war. I enjoyed student deferments until it was decided that was patently unfair.

Then, in 1969, I won my one and only lottery. I drew a high number so my chances of going to Vietnam were slim to none. Life went on as usual - college, Helen, parties, sailing, softball and the beach.

However, unlike today the nightly news did cover the carnage and it drove home the question of whether 58,000 dead was worth it - it was not. But, I readily admit the longer the war went on, the more disconnected I became. That was, until a college roommate was shot in the back and returned a paraplegic.

We had made a prior pledge to help each other if either of us got messed up. The following days were full of frustration, anger and resentment. I never felt so prone to violence. Fortunately, I also became more aware of the vets returning to the College of Forestry - how some vets coped better than others. More importantly, I learned that my opposition to the war did not negate my responsibility to honor a soldier's service.

But today, I find myself even more disconnected.

I used to track the causalities listed on the CNN Web site. This forced me to think about a face, an age, a home town and cause of death for each fallen soldier. However, I quit this practice after the casualties approached 2,000. So today, I see 4,064 U.S. soldiers are dead and another 29,829 are seriously hurt.

About 30 percent of U.S. troops are developing serious mental health problems within three to four months of returning home. Some would say that is an acceptable loss to eliminate an estimated 55,000 insurgents. But some 50,000-100,000 Iraqi civilians have also been killed. Ironically many of the civilian deaths are attributed to intertribal conflict, sectarian violence and civil war and not our fight against the terrorists. And so the numbers go on and on, but we can still be comfortable in the disconnected America. But there is no percentage in that. In fact, it is a death by a thousand cuts.

• Joe Mehrkens is a resident of Juneau.

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