According to my family’s recollection, none of our relatives has died fighting for the United States. My grandmother was from a small town in what is now Belarus and most people in the family were born, lived, and died there. One of her brothers, though, did something remarkable. If family memories are correct, he left town and went to the Sorbonne in Paris. After being there a short while, the Great War broke out, and he joined the French army to fight for his new home. He was killed, and my father and two of his cousins are named for him (in an Anglicized way).
I am in the first generation of men in my family to have been able to choose not to go to war. My father was in Korea as a doctor. His father joined the army shortly after immigrating to U.S., but the Great War ended shortly thereafter. My one American-born grandfather tried to join the army for World War I but was too skinny, so he went home and gorged on bananas until he was heavy enough to get in the army. He used to sing me WW I drinking songs when I was a kid. He was very patriotic, and tried to join up again for WW II but was rejected for being too old. He’s lucky he was, or my grandmother might have killed him herself. She seemed to understand something my very patriotic grandfather did not—war is dangerous. Even those who survive are often wounded in ways that is not easy to see.
When I was a medical resident I had my own patients at the V.A. hospital. I had vets from WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, and all the times in between. Many of the Viet Nam vets would come to me with the same story: they had headaches, or nightmares, or depression, and had never really talked about it. I would ask them frankly if they thought they had PTSD, and usually they would say they did. Some did very well, some did not. I would always ask them what the did in the war, expecting “infantry” or “marines” etc, but more often than not the answer I got was, “some really bad shit, Doc.”
Around that same time I used to stop at a watchmaker’s shop down the street from my apartment. The watchmaker was a veteran of the war in the Pacific, where he was a Marine officer. He was wounded several times, spoke of the war often, and had scrapbooks about the war and his buddies. But what he would mention most often was the men he’d killed. He didn’t regret it as such, but the memories of killing seemed to haunt him. He would tell me over and over how they’d had to kill or be killed, how they’d had to kill to win the war, to keep their country safe. It was all true. I’m not sure how much it mattered.
As we try to absorb back into society the veterans our latest wars have created, we are facing new and old challenges. Many have the same invisible wounds, but many have additional problems. Traumatic brain injuries and amputations have been very common in the last fifteen years or so due largely to IEDs. And soldiers, sailors, and marines are serving multiple tours year after year, increasing the risk of PTSD and other injuries.
Just as we cannot forget those who have fallen, we must not forget those who have gotten up again, but slowly. Many of them will fall again and again during their civilian lives and we must be prepared to pick them up. It is the very least we can do. The bare minimum, actually.