There have been no shortage of comparisons made between the recent images of Afghan civilians clinging to airplanes and the iconic image of Vietnamese citizens filling the stairs to the lone Huey helicopter sitting atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Both images represent tragedies with plenty of room for policy recrimination and debate about the role of America’s military in unstable states around the world. This column isn’t about any of that. It’s about collateral damage occurring here at home, frequently right under our noses, that we’ve found a way to see around, or past, or through. When we do this, we dishonor something very honorable, and a little of our nation’s soul is lost each time it happens.
A young veteran died here in Colorado this past July and is now buried at his home. Having been laid off during the economic downturn, his life was placed on a path that eventually put him on the street and ended for him one morning when he was shot and killed outside a McDonald’s. Much is unknown about that day and its events; his alleged assailant is in custody and headed for trial on multiple charges including first-degree murder. But the veteran’s life matters more than how he died, and I think about how he wound up in that place on that day. The roles of PTSD and self-medication on his path to homelessness are unknown to me, but they seem ripe for speculation. I didn’t know this young man, and so I don’t know what demons might or might not have been his companions. But I do know that we all wrestle with our own demons, and I have a suspicion they visit some people with more intensity than others. Yet even at their worst, our demons can’t take away what is best in each of us. It seems, from what I’ve read of what’s been shared by his family and friends, he was well-loved and will be remembered.
So while it would be easy to chalk this up as another statistic of America’s longest war and turn quickly away to avoid thinking about it too much, I think we should pause and remember an earlier period in this young man’s life. In 2000, he raised his right hand and swore an oath to our constitution. He put on the uniform of the United States Army and was deployed to Iraq where he was awarded a Purple Heart prior to being discharged. What he thought of the U.S. foreign policy that took him there isn’t known to me, and I doubt that it’s relevant, because he lived up to his oath, went where he was told to go, did what he was told to do, and likely hoped it would make a difference in a future world that might have less chaos and human suffering than our current one.
But when he returned home and took off that uniform, we didn’t keep our part of the bargain. True, our systems may have tried, but in the end, they failed him. Still, this isn’t intended as an indictment of those systems – that’s a debate unto itself. And this column isn’t even a call to personal action as there are many passionate, dedicated people already working hard to catch those veterans who fall through the safety net of our systems.
This column is simply an observation. An observation about a commitment that we need to work harder to keep. We live in a country where young men and women volunteer to put their lives on the line in the service of something bigger than themselves, and when they do so, they place immense trust in the policy makers who will decide whether to put them into harm’s way. And in this sense, Afghanistan and Iraq are fundamentally different from Vietnam in that everyone who served did so of their own volition. But they also did so believing the rest of us had their back; that if they were killed or wounded in action, their comrades in arms would move heaven and earth to bring them home. What they didn’t realize, and I wonder if we do, was that if their wounds were of a type to indirectly kill them once they arrived back on American soil, after the uniform was gone, the situation might be very different.
War should always be the most difficult policy decision to undertake. And when we undertake it, we make every effort to limit collateral damage in and around the conflict. But I wonder if we give enough thought to collateral damage that is separated from the conflict zone not by physical distance but by time. Our choices about what services we provide our veterans put this man in harm’s way again – in July 2021. But unlike when he wore the uniform, this time he was alone and unsupported. And that shouldn’t have happened – to him or any other veteran. If you felt sick to your stomach as you watched Afghans clinging to planes and wondered if we shouldn’t do more to live up to any commitments we made, written or implied, if you maybe even shed a tear at those images, you’re not alone – and you’re right to ask those questions. They come from a place deep within us where we fundamentally understand that when we make a compact with someone, when we give our word in commitment, we need to honor that.
The young man I write about was, at least in part, collateral damage from a war in the Middle East. And in the end, we didn’t keep our word to him. We need to be better than that. In fact, he’d earned our very best by giving his.
Dr. Tony Frank
Chancellor, Colorado State University System