“If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.”
~ Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried” (1990)

Violence begets violence. The empire, it seems, always comes home … eventually.

No doubt, Albert Wong, who shot up a Veterans’ Home in California last week, was an anomaly. There is no excuse or justification for this sort of horrific act of murder. Still, Americans must grapple with one inconvenient fact: Wong was a combat veteran. In fact, we both served in Afghanistan in 2011-12—not a pleasant period in that ongoing disaster of a war.

What are we to make of Wong’s act and his status as a veteran? Certainly not that all, or even most, vets will take such extreme actions. Murderous outbursts such as his remain, thankfully, exceedingly rare. That said, this heinous event should spark some debate and raise uncomfortable questions about the social cost of creating millions of new “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) veterans.

That’s what Americans have done, after all. An apathetic citizenry quietly acquiesced as a tiny fraction of Americans waged 17 years’ worth of unnecessary, unwinnable wars.

The outcome is messy—a few million damaged and often disgruntled souls—set loose in society, warts and all. Most veterans, mind you, do just fine; still, for a great many, life, in one way or another, is a constant struggle. Don’t act so surprised: we—the voting public—did this. The social cost is America’s to bear. Our leaders chose war. Send a few million to battle in vain (some on multiple tours) and the results are apt to be ugly. Uglier, in fact, than most would have predicted at the outset of America’s perpetual crusade in the Great Middle East. U.S. politicians and citizens mortgaged the communal costs of the inevitable veterans when they gambled on risky regime changes in an anarchic region. The chickens, so to speak, have come home to roost.

Veterans, many of them anyway, are in pain. Some significantly suffer. The statistics are staggering:

Nonetheless, this raw data rarely reaches the reading public. It’s too cold, too empirical, lifeless even. Consider, then, one real unit—the small scout platoon I led in Iraq from 2006-07.

We called ourselves the “Ghostriders,” a catchy nickname for 19 (mostly young) men assigned to 2nd platoon, B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Cav scouts trained in motorized reconnaissance, our unit spent 15 months working as standard infantrymen in and around Baghdad. You could write a book—I did—about everything that happened to these boys. Still, you’d inevitably miss half the details. So much of the heroism, and tragedy, is forever lost. Each individual journey warrants its own story. Suffice it to say, the Ghostriders endured a daunting road.

The platoon suffered 50 percent casualties: 3 killed, 6 wounded. An improvised explosive device (IED) took two young men—Alex Fuller, of Massachusetts, and Mike Balsley, of California. Another killed himself while on leave—James Smith, from Texas. Sergeant Ty Dejane, of Ohio, took a bullet in the back—he sports a wheelchair now and full VA disability. Sergeant “Ducks” Duzinskas, of Chicago, took shrapnel to the face, then, a month later, lost part of an arm in an IED. Staff Sergeant Micah Rittel, of Pennsylvania, took bomb shrapnel to the elbow. Ed Faulkner, of North Carolina, was shot by a sniper in the forearm, then, a few years later, took the brunt of a rocket blast in Afghanistan. He later left the army, suffered severe PTSD, and fatally overdosed.

We all navigated a tough road—the bravest battles waged alone and in our heads. Most suffered PTSD and some level of depression. Several received VA benefits. I lost count of how many—including myself—went through divorces in the immediate years following Iraq. One soldier did some time in an Arkansas prison. A couple others became cops. Many of us drank too much.

We lost touch, mostly, spread to the four winds across the continental United States. When we see one another it is truly special; when we part, the loneliness is palpable. This, of course, was just one platoon, in one small subsection, at one moment in time, of one big war. Some had it easier, plenty had it worse. All bore the countless costs of an abortive war in a faraway place.

No author, this one included, can communicate the accumulated costs and emotional trauma inflicted on this entire cohort of GWOT veterans. There are too many stories to tell, too many individual secrets concealed. Nonetheless, pragmatic fatalism does not obviate us of the responsibility to try; and try we must.

Of this much, I’m sure: America asked too much, perhaps the impossible of its veterans—invade sovereign nations, overthrow regimes, maintain order, “spread democracy,” “build” nations, counter insurgents, kill terrorists, protect the innocent, build a functioning economy, improve public health, and somehow … deep breath, stay sane doing it.

Some tasks are unachievable, some wars unwinnable. Optimism is admirable, but—in war—realism preferable. Today’s wars touch relatively small segments of the population—about 1 percent—but that’s still 2.7 million men and women who dutifully executed a hopeless crusade in America’s name. This is a generation of vets who tilted at Mideast windmills like so many camouflaged Don Quixotes while the citizenry watched reality TV.

Now, Americans pay, and will continue to pay—literally and figuratively—the monetary and social costs to care for my legion of veterans for decades to come. I use VA hospitals and facilities; I’ve been in the waiting rooms and braved the serpentine lines; the joints are just brimming with Vietnam-era veterans. To their number we’ve added nearly 3 million GWOT veterans, and counting—the war isn’t over by a longshot!

And for what? The U.S. lost in Vietnam, unable to force an illegitimate government through external, foreign sponsorship. The old sprawling US military bases closed decades ago; all that remains are the scarred vets in their black ball caps and motorcycle vests. The US has already lost its war for the Greater Middle East. It just doesn’t know—or hasn’t accepted—it yet.

Someday soon, when the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) close and perverse local autocrats once again reign supreme, we, a new generation of exhausted veterans will be all that’s left: 2.7 million reasons to remember that—for every war … there’s a cost.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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