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On This Memorial Day Let Us Not Overlook War's Traumas

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Monday, May 25, 2009

"IWISH TO GOD I hadn't seen that." Those words spoken by an American platoon leader near Anzio in February 1944 (noted in Rick Atkinson's history of the Italian campaign) echo through all the wars that Americans and their enemies and allies have ever fought, as an expression of one of the most profound and shattering consequences of warfare. We'll spare you the details of the carnage the platoon leader saw, just as he and thousands like him have spared their countrymen the particulars of episodes they couldn't bear to recall or relate. It's enough to say that scenes of that kind have been all too common and have often evoked much the same reaction: People knew they had been changed by witnessing them -- wounded, in fact, not mortally but nevertheless for life.

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Today the country is supposed to honor the fallen of all its wars. But "fallen" is a word for inscriptions and oratory -- it doesn't really convey what happens to those caught up in the ghastly business of warfare and subject to all the horrors inflicted by flying metal, high explosives and machines made for destruction. Nor does it quite encompass what happened to many of those who served day after day in constant danger and surrounded by death. They lost something in the country's wars -- but not a limb or eyesight or the ability to walk or any essential physical capability. What was lost was a view of life as having meaning, order, security, purpose. It is a feeling that has taken many names over the years -- shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder -- none of which expresses the heaviness of the burden it imposes on those who suffer it.

The military and those who work with the nation's veterans are pledging themselves to a more serious effort to learn about the difficulties faced by men and women who have served and suffered in this way; it is acting to treat them just as it treats those who have suffered physical injury and trying, to the extent it can, to make them whole again. But as with everyone who has sacrificed for the country, it isn't an obligation just for the military or the government. It's one that extends to all of us. It isn't a matter of pity or charity but rather of understanding and, in fact, admiration and support for those wounded in body and spirit and struggling now to regain what they have lost. After four years of war, Abraham Lincoln called on all the people "to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." That's work we are still in today.


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