During his 1865 inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln memorably appealed for good treatment of veterans: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
“Veteran” comes from the Latin word vetus (ironically meaning “old”) to recognize an individual’s experience or lengthy service in a specific field of endeavor. Personally, I’m proud to be a military veteran, but I’m not too fond of the “old” part.
More than 16 million men and women served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Almost 292,000 paid the ultimate sacrifice; another 113,842 lost their lives in non-combat-related accidents. At the war’s end, approximately 79,000 American warriors were listed as M.I.A. (Missing in Action) and as of 2012, only 6,000 of those M.I.A.s had been identified. Among the missing are 32,569 United States seamen classified as lost at sea; their remains will never be recovered.
During World War II, 464 military personnel received the Medal of Honor, most posthumously. Only nine World War II Medal of Honor recipients are still with us. This “Greatest Generation” of American warriors is vanishing at the rate of one every 90 seconds. Their median age is 93. Of the more than 16 million who served, fewer than 1.4 million still walk the earth.
Korea, the “Forgotten War,” will never be forgotten by the soldiers who fought over worthless real estate in below-zero weather. About 54,000 died in Korea; approximately 34,000 deaths were combat-related. The POW tally: 7,140.
Of these, 4,418 were returned when the war ended, 2,701 died in captivity, and 21 misplaced souls rejected repatriation. The median age for a Korean veteran is 69. There are 58,267 names on a long black granite wall in Washington, D.C. The men and women represented on that wall lost their lives in a war that divided a nation. They served honorably; they did their jobs, but they were never allowed to win a war that was lost in the opinionated hallways of Washington, D.C.
“In-country” meant your boots trudged through a rainforest or sloshed through a filthy rice paddy. Of my 2,709,918 brothers and sisters who served “in-country,” fewer than 800,000 are still living to tell their story, or still choosing to remain silent. The youngest Vietnam veteran is about 54 years old.
Women served in Vietnam, too — approximately 7,500 of them. They were nurses, for the most part. Eight of them died. Sixty-one percent of the men who died were 21 years old or younger. Of the married men, 17,539 never saw their families again.
Disabling injuries or amputations to the lower appendages in Vietnam were 70 percent higher than in Korea and 300 percent higher than in World War II.
Among injuries in World War II, the rate of multiple amputations was 5.7 percent; in Vietnam, the multiple amputations rate hit 18.4 percent. Five American soldiers killed in Vietnam were 16 years old; the youngest casualty was only 15; the oldest was 62.
Some 82 percent of Vietnam combat veterans are convinced the war was lost due to lack of political backbone. And 74 percent claim they would fight again, even if they knew the outcome.
Stolen valor is a problem: around 14,000,000 men have falsely claimed to have served “in-country,” which means four out of five claiming to be Vietnam veterans are not.
The immobilizing remembrance of combat has been labeled as Trench Fever, Shell Shock, Combat Fatigue, the 1,000-yard stare, or the more established catchphrase PTSD, meaning Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Adding to the grief, an estimated 19 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may be tormented by TBI, meaning Traumatic Brain Injury.
A tour in Vietnam was 12 months, 364 days and a wake-up. Our troops today withstand four or five, sometimes eight deployments to the combat zones. The physical, psychological, financial and marital difficulties skyrocket with each deployment. So-called experts estimate that among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, 14 percent suffer from PTSD, 39 percent abuse alcohol, 3 percent abuse drugs, and major depression is a “major” problem.
Today, right now, 22 veterans commit suicide every day, or an average of one every 65 minutes. In 2012, the military institutions witnessed 349 active-duty suicides, which outpaced combat deaths.
The Band of Brothers and Sisters is an exclusive alliance inaccessible to civilians. We shun speaking of our experiences outside the Band due to either a perceived lack of interest or fearing the accusation of boasting. So we stick to ourselves because we’ve been there, done that, and can truly understand each other. We laugh together and cry together. We seek to remember, then seek to forget. We are American veterans.
As I approach the gates of heaven, I will tell St. Peter, “Another soldier reporting, sir; I’ve already served my time in hell.’’
God bless our veterans on their very special day.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.