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December 2001 • Vol 1, No. 7 •

The Price of War

by Michael Blecker

THIS VETERANS DAY is particularly poignant. As our nation turns again to the grim business of war, we who are combat veterans see yet another generation of young men and women placed in harm’s way.

And the harm continues.

For the past 25 years in my work at Swords to Plowshares, I have had the honor of helping warriors of several wars. I have never failed to be struck by the depth of their wounds — wounds of the mind, body and spirit.

My grandfather fought in World War I, my father in World War II. In 1968, at the age of 19, I was sent to Vietnam. At that time, there were still 500,000 American troops in Vietnam, but the Khe Sanh battle and the Tet offensive made the nation realize that the light at the end of the tunnel was really an oncoming train.

As an airborne infantryman, I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. Actually, I was on the fire team of the first squad, second platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion (Airmobile), 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division.

In other words, a grunt.

We grunts were not briefed by the Pentagon on issues of military strategy, but it didn’t take much to know that we had been thrown into a meat grinder.

We understood how expendable we were. In field parlance, a GI was worth more than a jeep but less than a helicopter. The 19-year-old soldiers, mostly poor and many of color, never expected to engage in a war ending in victory. Few remained gung ho for long. We just wanted to go home.

For the grunt, the war was heat and weight and the humping and air assaults and body counts. It was the colonels flying over us with their radio code signs of Charger, Ramrod and Trail Boss, colonels who talked about 5,000-pound bombs giving the enemy a real migraine and how we the troops could expect to get our noses bloodied — as we humped from one hill to the next, like bait trying to draw fire from the enemy.

Once we found the enemy, we would unleash the firepower of artillery, helicopter gunships, air strikes and our formidable small-arms fire, all in pursuit of body count.

The Vietnam War, as with all armed conflicts, produced extraordinary suffering and impoverishment. It left a country ravaged by napalm fires, cratered from supreme firepower and planted with unexploded land mines that continue to kill innocent people to this day.

More than 58,000 American military personnel died in Indochina between 1958 and 1975. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died. American bombing killed at least 50,000 civilians in North Vietnam alone.

The suffering continues.

Many veterans face worsening difficulties. Each day, our offices on Market Street at the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco fill with more than 100 disheartened veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines in search of dignity, hope and a place to stay that night. We see these brave men and women beaten down with few places to turn for help.

Homelessness is alarming. Veterans make up about a third of the male homeless population. Nearly half of them served during the Vietnam War. They suffer high rates of hepatitis C and other diseases, substance abuse and mental illness, together with other health and social problems. For many, years of living in marginal circumstances have exacerbated physical disabilities and chronic health conditions.

With the support of the community, these veterans can turn their lives around and live again with dignity and hope. Drug and alcohol recovery programs, mental health counseling, legal help, education and job training programs can and do help.

In San Francisco, however, there are severe shortages in residential treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and even shelter beds. This year, federal, state and local budgets are likely to shrink, further reducing already slim opportunities for homeless people.

When I reflect on my experience as a combatant in the Vietnam War and later as a provider of services to veterans in need, I am struck by the profound nature of the true costs of war.

War, all war, causes deep wounds and immeasurable suffering. It continues far beyond the battlefield.

The injustices of the Vietnam War, where we destroyed villages in order to save them, and sent thousands of boys halfway ’round the world to their deaths in order to defeat communism, wounded us as a nation.

Many Americans then aggravated the wounds by blaming our warriors for the failings of the war.

For the Pentagon, the great lesson of Vietnam was never again to allow the news media access to the truths of the battlefield. Among the many tragic consequences was the Pentagon’s cover-up of Persian Gulf War toxic exposures that may have affected the lives of thousands of U.S. veterans.

As our nation sends soldiers to the front lines and we create another generation of war veterans, how can we trust that they will be cared for after their return?

How can we safeguard against the legacy of untruths? How can we ensure that future patriotic displays will not continue to ring hollow for veterans who so desperately need a helping hand?

We can only hope and wait, and try to inform the public of the true effects of armed conflict on our soldiers, our country, our future.

We can ask our community to listen to the voices of veterans who were put in harm’s way for our country — and then forgotten.

Michael Blecker is executive director of Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 and dedicated to “restoring dignity, hope and self-sufficiency to veterans in need.” www.swords-to-plowshares.org

This article appeared in the November 8, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle





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