Skip to main content

'Thanks for your service' not enough

By Sebastian Junger, Jim McDermott and Karl Marlantes
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Sat May 24, 2014
Union soldiers at Arlington House, across the Potomac River from Washington on June 28, 1864. It is the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Union soldiers at Arlington House, across the Potomac River from Washington on June 28, 1864. It is the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
HIDE CAPTION
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
150 years of Arlington National Cemetery
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: America is not fulfilling promise to soldiers to help them on their return to society
  • They say veterans adrift face unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, suicide
  • They say many cultures see embrace of veterans as critical. All Americans should, too
  • Writers: We must be one nation, together with our veterans, help them reintegrate, reconcile

Editor's note: Sebastian Junger is the author of, among other books,"The Perfect Storm" and "War," a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and contributor to ABC News. His Oscar-nominated documentary, "Restrepo," won the 2010 grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His new documentary, "Korengal," opens in New York on May 30. Jim McDermott is a U.S. representative from Washington state and a former psychiatrist in the U.S. Navy. He is a senior member of the House Budget Committee and the Committee on Ways and Means. Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and 10 Air Medals. He is the author of "Matterhorn" and "What It Is Like To Go To War."

(CNN) -- Historian David W. Blight has written that the first Memorial Day took place in Charleston, South Carolina. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of African-Americans -- recently freed from slavery -- honored the Union soldiers entombed in the rocky ground of the Charleston Race Course.

Sebastian Junger
Sebastian Junger
Jim McDermott
Jim McDermott
Karl Marlantes
Karl Marlantes

Twenty-nine days later, William Tecumseh Sherman concluded his farewell order from the United States Army with the words, "Your general now bids you farewell, with the full belief that, as in war you have been good soldiers, so in peace you will make good citizens."

On this Memorial Day 2014, we must acknowledge, not as a member of Congress, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a journalist-filmmaker, but as one nation indivisible, that Sherman's hope for American soldiers is not being realized today.

According to current Veterans Administration estimates, 22 American veterans take their lives every single day.

High rates of unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress are decimating our community of veterans. With the wars of the past 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to a close, we are seeing too many casualties among American soldiers in this transition to peace.

In light of this crisis, we need a new kind of Memorial Day.

Many veterans are desperate to talk about their experiences with fellow Americans who accept shared responsibility for what is done in war, particularly the killing. Yet these conversations rarely happen today. How can a veteran truly come home unless we acknowledge that our nation's wars are something we all chose and paid for?

Returning Vietnam veterans were treated shamefully. That, thankfully, is behind America. We've moved from outright hostility to awkward, if well-meant, expressions of "thank you for your service" and the creation of a number of new veterans services organizations.

However, there remains an abiding sense of national indifference, or worse, a sense that somehow veterans are victims. This must change.

22 veterans kill themselves every day
Korb says VA has gotten better under Shinseki
W.H.: Shinseki deserves credit
Korb says VA has gotten better under Shinseki

There are more than 2 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in America. That they are all proud volunteers doesn't excuse us from helping them come home.

Yes, the VA and other government services that cater to veterans need to work better, but there is an additional, crucial step that America must take: The entire nation must accept responsibility for the wounds, psychological and physical, that they bring home from war. Opposing the recent wars does not exempt one from this responsibility any more than opposing national health care exempts one from having to take care of America's sick and injured.

Many veterans didn't see combat, but all were separated from their families for long periods and subjected to the enormous stresses of life in a war zone. Ironically, a consequence is that veterans often feel excluded from the very society they helped defend.

Other cultures understood this obligation to help rebuild the bond between a returning warrior and his community. In early Native American cultures, a warrior back from battle participated in purification ceremonies intended to reaffirm his identity. These rituals also empowered the community to welcome the warrior home: To listen to his battle tales, to appreciate his sacrifice, and to assert his value in society.

In our modern society, tribal rituals should give way to a concerted, national effort to share in the stories of our fighting men and women. Pomp and circumstance are fine, but what our veterans really need is a solemn commemoration that the wars of the past 13 years -- wars waged by all of us -- are over. Our veterans also need public forums in which to tell their stories. Our soldiers' stories are visceral, and sometimes repugnant, and their telling can close the widening gap that exists between our military and the rest of American society.

We are either one nation or we're not. We can't have it both ways. This is what future Memorial Days in America could mean to us all.

Whether through community forums, statewide listening tours or action at the federal level, a national embrace of our veterans' experiences is a profound way to combat today's veterans' crisis. Each and every American must make a commitment to help return our soldiers to society: cleansed, rehabilitated, welcomed, and empowered.

Our soldiers deserve a Memorial Day 2.0. And, as we help our veterans navigate their paths of reconciliation and reintegration, we may become better citizens ourselves.

We may also find that the answers to many of America's most pressing challenges are found in the pain and pride, the tragedies and triumphs, of American soldiers.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT