Iraq and Vietnam Vets: Sharing Wounds of War

Very moving op-ed in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle on why Vietnam still matters, by Michael Blecker, a former Vietnam infantryman who now is executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a Veteran's help agency in San Francisco.

The shorter version: People get tired of comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. It may be 35 years later, but many are still feeling the devastation of Vietnam--the Vets. The U.S. has done little to help them. And all indications are the soldiers who return from Iraq will face the same problems and receive even less help from the Government.

Here are some snippets, but you should read the whole thing.

At Swords to Plowshares, we see the Vietnam War every day in the form of the walking wounded -- rampant homelessness and poverty, post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange-related health issues, physical ailments. Meanwhile, the benefits and services available to these vets lag far behind what is needed.

Soon enough, we'll be seeing the Iraq war's traumatized returnees sleeping in doorways as well, their emotional and health problems untreated.

Blecker says as divided as Vets may be on whether the U.S. should have fought the Vietnam war, there is one thing they agree on:

They would never want their sons and daughters to repeat their experience -- to fight that kind of war, to come home to indifference or hostility from all sides, to be denied the benefits they need.

Here's what vets used to get when the GI bill was first passed in the '40s:

...veterans' housing, health care, income assistance, and training and educational opportunities.

Blecker says the bill has been watered-down to the point where we have created "an underclass of Vietnam Veteran." He predicts what this will mean for those soldiers returning from Iraq:

Today, despite an enormous defense budget, there is woefully inadequate funding for current service members' family separation pay, military housing programs, military family assistance centers, education funding for military schoolchildren, and health coverage for the families of reservists.

Blecker says it is certain the Iraqi soldiers will return home in need.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 50 percent of combat veterans will suffer from clinical depression or post-traumatic stress after their discharge. Men coming home from Iraq will be twice as likely to face homelessness as their civilian counterparts; female veterans will be four times more likely to live on the streets. Most of these homeless vets will not be cared for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although it is the largest homeless provider in the nation, the department is only able to assist 20 percent of homeless veterans.

As to those who say, "Get over Vietnam," Blecker responds:

It's important that we remember the lessons of Vietnam. As long as our nation treats Vietnam vets shamefully, what real chance will veterans of the Iraq War have to return home to honorable treatment?

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