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What We Owe Our Soldiers

ISSUE:  Summer 2009

The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans,
by Aaron Glantz. California, January 2009. $24.95

When Army Specialist Thomas Wilson asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at a 2004 town hall meeting in Kuwait, why the Army was so ill-equipped to protect its soldiers, Secretary Rumsfeld pasted on his best avuncular scowl and said, “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have.” Wilson’s pointed question shocked some, Rumsfeld’s heartless reply prompted competing choruses of outrage, and we all began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into while we were busy adding new terms like “IED” and “Hillbilly Armor” to our collective vocabularies.

What we didn’t do, and Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home makes this mortifying point again and again, is step back to consider the full implication of Specialist Wilson’s question, which might take the form of another question: “What else did we forget to do when planning this thing?” But Glantz’s book actually presents two more damning possibilities: “We didn’t forget anything” and “We’re still not prepared to properly account for, much less fix, the Army we broke.”

It’s true that this is more than a twice-told story (and precedes this war: an expression I learned early, and heard often, in the Marine Corps was “fucked again!”), but Glantz has pulled off a remarkable feat in The War Comes Home: in addition to presenting series after series of gasp-inducing data (78,000 wounded; 324,000 VA claims filed for traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or other illness; 49,523 veterans discharged without benefits for some combination of drug, alcohol, behavioral, or personal problems), he has created the first full narrative of these disasters and done so in a series devastating individual stories.

From the heroic struggle of Corporal Justin Bunce and his family as they fought to receive appropriate medical care following his near-fatal brain injury or Staff Sergeant Cody Miranda’s harrowing journey from Iraq to AWOL and homeless to his final reinstatement and treatment within a Marine Corps Wounded Warrior program, Glantz’s portraits of wounded veterans fighting a second war against three-ring binders filled with unwieldy regulations and three-ring circuses run by cost-cutters and over-eager disciplinarians are heartbreaking one and all.

Throughout The War Comes Home, one glimpses the possibility that all of this has been a mistake, an oversight, something we’re catching up with . . . finally. But for too many it is too late, and there are too many trails leading back to cynical beginnings, such as Bush Undersecretary of Defense David Chu’s claim that veteran care is “hurtful” and “(takes) away from the nation’s ability to defend itself.” You almost need to invent a new flavor of rage to respond to a statement like this when Glantz turns from it to its consequences for veterans like Jeffrey Lucey and Jonathan Schulze, both of whom committed suicide after being turned away by an overwhelmed VA.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have far exceeded any of the costs we were initially sold in the bill of goods: a common estimate of the dollar cost exceeds three trillion dollars. We have also broken most of what the Army and Marine Corps took to war. But dollars can be raised and military parts are fungible, whether ball bearings or billets: that’s how the military is designed. Aaron Glantz’s The War Comes Home draws up a different ledger: one of costs not so easily borne and whose expense is tallied in limbs and minds and lives. It is one thing to go to war with the Army you have—but to cynically expend the lives of those who comprise that Army, then fail to take up the full burden of their care, is not an oversight but a damned shame.

Read Joel Turnipseed’s interview with Aaron Glantz.


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