Skip to main content

'Thanks for your service' not enough

By Sebastian Junger, Jim McDermott and Karl Marlantes
May 24, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT