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Don’t take vets’ service, sacrifice for granted

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Monday was a fairly nice day, sunny and with a mild temperature. If you didn’t have government business, it was easy to miss that Monday was also Veterans Day. The celebration was, let’s just say, not widespread.

And that’s a pity, because Americans owe the veterans of this country a tremendous amount of support and appreciation. Our military forces have always been the true protectors of our country and the democratic republic we live under. We are free because they have fought and died to keep us free.

In times past, those words meant more than they do now. When Americans fought their major wars — most recently World War I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War — the impact of the wars at home was significant. The draft filled in the gaps when enlistees weren’t enough, taking young people away from families all across the country and turning them into veterans on the front lines of death and destruction. The “home front” worked around their absences and supported them whenever they could.

When the troops returned home from the world wars, victory achieved, they were greeted — rightly — as heroes. Their sacrifice was still appreciated during the indecisive but bloody Korean War, and the nation found at least some ways — like the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration — to help them in peacetime.

The draft was last used during Vietnam when 27 million young men were eligible and ultimately 2.2 million were drafted. Vietnam cost the lives of 58,000 Americans, immortalized on the Vietnam Wall in Washington. Sadly, the troops did not come home to honor and celebrations. The war was unpopular and too many Americans at home took it out on the survivors who returned. Vietnam vets have had a rough time since then.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, the U.S. dropped the draft and created the “all-volunteer” forces we have today, the various services recruiting and even competing for recruits. The volunteer military forces have served their country well, sacrificing much for their country in the military conflicts we have had since Vietnam, including the invasion of Afghanistan and the two wars against Iraq. The death toll has been lower, thanks to improved equipment and medical advances, but the number of injured soared and the stress of years of war have inflicted a heavy toll on survivors.

Our military veterans face a lot of problems when they return from combat, which is no less horrible than it ever was. The problem is that most Americans don’t see it because only a relative few families are affected compared to the days of the draft.

We’ve learned to say, “Thank you for your service,” but our awareness and our gratitude tend to stop there. The VA is overburdened and underfunded, and too often used as a political football. Military families don’t get the support they once had, and the suicide rate among veterans is soaring. But the problems now happen out of sight.

I’m sensitive to this because I’ve lived through it. I was raised in a military family; my father was a career officer in the U.S. Navy who served in both Korea and Vietnam, commanding several ships and gone as many as nine months at a time. By the time he reached the rank of captain, he served several important tours of duty in the Pentagon.

I was never drafted and medically ineligible to enlist, but I tried to serve as a civilian while in high school and college. I spent two summers working for the Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, one summer working for the Navy in Coronado, California, and two summers working in the Pentagon in the Southeast Asia branch of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Secretariat. And I knew friends and fathers of friends who were killed in action, leaving us all to grieve.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I dislocated and broke my knee while playing dodgeball in my backyard, requiring an operation, a full leg cast and a month of care in the hospital at Fort Belvoir. I was in a ward with 12 beds, the rest of them filled with young men wounded in battle back in Vietnam, some of them groaning in traction and all of them disabled in pain.

As these young soldiers traded battle stories about how and where they were injured, I was a bit embarrassed to admit, “I got hurt in my backyard.” But I saw their suffering and they were heroes to me.

Our modern military depends upon young men and women volunteers, who are well trained and motivated to serve their country, and we ask a lot of them at home and abroad. It’s important to them and to us that we never take their service for granted — and that when they need help in return, we as a nation are quick and generous to provide it. That’s what Veterans Day meant to me.

Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Spring Hope Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.