St. Louis Leads Way in Welcoming Veterans Home

The author reflects on a recent parade in St. Louis he attended honoring veterans and its reminder of how he believes more needs to be done to support veterans and their sacrifices for the country.

We happened to be in St. Louis on Saturday, January 28, to watch the Colorado Thunderbirds Traveling Pee-wee All-Star hockey team (grandson Zach is a member) play in a tournament there, when we came across a huge parade on Market Street welcoming home Iraq war and other post-September 11 veterans, as described in an Associated Press (AP) article. 

The AP article indicated that this was the first such parade in the nation.  Parade organizers estimated that there were 20,000 participants and 100,000 observers.  Way to go, St. Louis!  The fact that it apparently hasn’t been done anywhere else tells me that these two most recent wars, after being highly publicized when they began, slipped off our collective radar as they dragged on year after year.  Extensive media coverage of multiple GI deaths and injuries via suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, or helicopter crashes, and harrowing front-line reports such as those done from Afghanistan by Lara Logan for 60 Minutes, focused our attention on the wars when they happened, but once the worldwide recession kicked in, the struggling economy largely took over the spotlight.

Against that backdrop, I was most encouraged to read that officials from Chicago, my home town of Denver, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Tucson, Nashville, Greensboro, N.C., and Clinton, Iowa,. have approached parade coordinators to explore the possibility of following in St. Louis’ footsteps.

The AP article noted that organizers “Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum used social media to generate support and money. They needed just one month and less than $40,000 to pull it off.”  Messrs. Schneider and Applebaum deserve great credit for pioneering this effort to honor our veterans, and I hope and believe it will gain momentum quickly and grow into a national initiative.

In the process of searching for recent casualty statistics from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, I ran across an article by Rod Powers called “The Cost of War,” published as an Guide on January 26, 2012. 

Mr. Powers observed that “As of August 2, 4,683 brave Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) on October 7, 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began with the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.”   He found that 113 of those fatalities were women.

The article went on to quote statistics which show that two branches of the Service have sustained the overwhelming majority of the deaths.  It noted that the “Army (including the Army National Guard and Reserves) comprises 48.8% of the total DOD force, but sustained 73.2% (2,716) of the combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Marine Corps (including the Reserves) makes up only 10.8% of the total DOD force, but experienced 23.3% (867) of the combat related deaths.”

Among age groups:

  • Ages 18-21 — 28.2% (1,325) of the deaths
  • Ages 22-24 — 23.7% (1,108) of the deaths
  • Ages 25-30 — 25.6% (1,198) of the deaths
  • Ages 31-35 — 10.4% (486) of the deaths
  • Over 35 — 12.1% (566) of the deaths

These statistics, tilted so heavily toward the young, bring to mind such quotes as that of George McGovern, former U.S. Senator, presidential candidate, and World War II hero:  “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Mr. Powers went on to recite statistics on the number of wounded.  He wrote that “30,490 U.S. service members have been wounded due to combat actions in Iraq and 2,309 in Afghanistan (32,799 total).”  Perhaps there will be no more dead or wounded soldiers in Iraq, but the casualty count is certainly mounting fast in Afghanistan.

Advances in medical science have allowed soldiers to survive horrendous wounds which would likely have killed them in earlier wars, but in many cases their lives going forward are nothing like the ones they left behind.  Many will need 24/7 nursing case for as long as they live.  In addition to the physically maimed are the many who suffer from “invisible wounds” such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The winter 2009 edition of “NIH MedlinePlus” quoted U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts almost 30% of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20% of Iraq war veterans.  And according to a National Academy of Neurology article from January 24, 2008, citing an Army task force report, nearly 20% of troops have experienced at least a mild TBI during deployment.  Similar statistics appeared in an article published in Daily Finance.  The article, “People@Work:  The Tough Job of Getting Disabled Veterans Back to Work,” by David Schepp, stated that “some 19% of troops received a probable TBI during deployment.  Moreover, about 30% have more than one disability, further complicating veterans’ diagnoses and treatment.”

I suspect that even those estimates are low.  To quote Argentine-born writer/journalist José Narosky, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”

Mr. Schepp referred to a study conducted by Hannah Rudstam of Cornell University who worked with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) on a study of companies’ readiness to hire and accommodate disabled vets.

“The study found few were fully prepared to meet the needs of disabled vets in the workplace.  ‘Though employers indicated having good will in this area and did see some benefits in employing veterans with disabilities, they were struggling to translate this good will into solid recruiting, hiring and accommodation practices,’ Rudstam said in a statement releasing the findings.”

”Preliminary findings from employer responses showed that 85% were unfamiliar with TBI, often an unseen disability. In an interview, Rudstam says many respondents were familiar with TBI but were largely unfamiliar with how it manifests itself in the workplace or how to accommodate someone with the injury.  Further, some employers weren’t sure if people with such a disability are even able to work.

“Among veterans, the overall unemployment rate of working-age vets, ages 21 to 64, was nearly 30%, according to data compiled last year by the Census Bureau.  However, as with the general population, veterans with disabilities have a much higher unemployment rate — 41% — than their counterparts who’ve returned from conflict without one — 27%.

”More alarming is that the 41% jobless rate may be a conservative estimate. That’s especially true for veterans who return with two signature disabilities of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:  post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), which frequently go undiagnosed.”

Welcome home parades such as the one in St. Louis are very important symbolically, particularly if they spread to all corners of the country.  But they are just a small down payment on the enormous debt we owe to those military members who have put their lives and futures on the line – and to their families, who often suffer major trauma before, during and after their loved ones’ deployments, with some troops having been deployed to war zones again and again.

Those of us who have not seen combat can only imagine its horrors.  We need to make sure that these heroes are not forgotten, and that they get the help they need and have earned a thousand times over.  One way to do that, I believe, is to write, again and again, to the White House and to our Congressional representatives demanding that the Department of Veterans Affairs be funded adequately to meet the needs of our returning veterans
, regardless of the cost.  And that the same government which sent them to war give the veterans the benefit of the doubt when they seek treatment and compensation for injuries and/or illnesses sustained in that conflict, unlike what happened with Gulf War syndrome, for example.  We can also join and support worthy non-profits such as Operation Gratitude.  Another possibility would be to help organize “welcome home” parades/events in your hometowns. 

The parade in St. Louis reminded me that I needed to do more to support returning veterans; in my case, that was pitifully easy, since I had done next to nothing.  The idea that so many of our veterans are unemployed, even homeless, and that so many have had to fight for the treatment that they need is completely unacceptable.  Compared to what they have given, a bit of our time, effort and money doesn’t seem to be much of a sacrifice. 

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.