On the day I heard that President Obama had officially declared the Iraq war over, I was at the Danville Veterans’ Administration hospital (VA) with my partner S, an Iraq War veteran. S is six months into a disability application, a request for benefits and compensation for disabilities sustained during military service, which will likely take another year to process.Eric Ruin (justseeds.org)
We found ourselves navigating through a maze of yellowed walkways and drab interiors, shuttled from admissions offices to mental health clinics. While we were not the only ones moving through that system, we were perhaps moving faster than the others. Many veterans of previous wars—the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, World War I—lined the route, being pushed in wheelchairs, walking on canes, some perhaps visiting for the day with their families, some completely alone. S was one of the only young people I saw in this wing of the VA, and based on the way people looked at us, they clearly knew that he was a “hero” of the war that President Obama had just declared “completed.”
It took S five years to work up the guts to apply for disability status after getting home, and now I understand why. Anyone who has ever spent time in the military knows that there is a stigma against saying you are hurt, especially if those wounds are not visible. And then to go back to the institution that hurt you, with no record of the injuries you have sustained, to ask for help, to say you are not OK, runs the risk of adding insult to injury.
But being there with S, I realized there is another dimension to VA visits enough to keep you away for a lifetime: the proof that war is a lifetime for those who survive, that it traps you in its drab hallways, in its medical appointments and slow-moving applications and appeals, in its memory and worldview, in its wounds. Long after the war is declared over and the country stops paying attention to their suffering, veterans still walk those hallways, go to those appointments, and take those pills.
Even though Obama ran on the anti-war ticket, he ended up declaring the war a success. All day, I turned over in my head the President’s speech from that morning: “We knew this day would come. We’ve known it for some time. But still there is something profound about the end of a war that has lasted so long. It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success.”