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After the parades: What U.S. owes to its youngest vets

May 30, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

After a week off, I returned to work and, among other things, an e-mail from a well-known local veteran decrying what he felt was Hagerstown city officials' inadequate observance of Memorial Day.

Because I was out of town, I can't judge the adequacy of the event, although The Herald-Mail reported that 25 groups laid wreaths at the memorial outside of the Washington County Courthouse.

It would be good, as one veteran said, if more people had attended the event. But let me suggest that there is another duty ordinary citizens need to perform for veterans - one that will take more than an hour on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

A variety of sources, including MSNBC and The New York Times, has reported that the survival rate for American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased to 90 percent, up from 75 percent during the Vietnam War. That's due to improved body armor the troops are using, as well as better treatment methods on the battlefield.

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Many who are coming home wounded now would have died under the conditions that existed in World War II and Korea.

My father was a World War II vet, as were many of those men I knew growing up, but no one I knew was missing a leg or an arm. The only amputee I knew was my great-grandfather, who lost a leg due to complications from diabetes.

Today, arms and legs can be replaced by prosthetic limbs, but these sophisticated devices can cost $10,000 or more apiece. The question of who pays will become an issue within the next year.

That's because The Washington Post has reported that hundreds of soldiers have lost limbs in combat, not to mention the injuries that have taken place when improvised explosive devices have damaged soldiers' brains with shock waves from the blasts.

Despite their injuries, many of these soldiers come home with the hope that after being fitted with prostheses and undergoing rehabilitation, they will be able to resume some semblance of normal lives.

In April 2006, The Post profiled Dawn Halfaker, one of the few female U.S. soldiers to lose a limb during the current combat in Iraq.

She lost an arm and a leg and was burned on her face as a result of an attack from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

All of these veterans will need expensive medical care and replacement limbs for the next 30 or 40 years. The question is: Are citizens willing to pay that price?

The recent stories about the rundown building where GIs tried to recover from their wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center suggest that if citizens aren't vigilant, wounded soldiers just might get second-rate care.

No matter what any of us believe about the Iraq war - how it's been fought or the strategies of those in charge - we cannot let those thoughts take our focus off those who went to war and returned with much less than they left with.

Ideally, the nation's veterans organizations would lead the charge for better care for veterans. But in his book, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," author Robert Putnam notes that these groups are declining in membership.

Some suggest these groups may eventually rebound as young veterans realize they need the strength of numbers to push for better benefits and health care for injuries that their predecessors probably would not have survived.

Until that happens and even afterwards, it's every citizen's duty to see that those who fought are cared for and that the federal government continues to support projects such as the Soldier Treatment and Regeneration Consortium.

Its goal, as reported by The Associated Press in March 2006, is nothing less than finding a way to get the body to regenerate parts such as ears and fingers.

To some, that might sound like science fiction, but for young soldiers facing life with maimed hands, it could be the miracle they need and, more important, that they deserve.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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