The costs of war

As of 2014, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying a Civil War pension. The last surviving child of a Union veteran still receives a small, monthly pension payment 149 years after the Civil War ended.[1]


In the final paragraph of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, on  March 4, 1865, the president delivered his prescription for the nation’s recovery: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Irene Triplett’s pension, albeit small, stands as a reminder that the checks we wrote in wartime still must be honored long after the guns fall silent. The VA is also still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War. World War I ended a 100 years ago, and the last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011. But 4,038 widows, sons and daughters get monthly VA pension or other payments. Our cost today, for that Great War of 100 years ago, our annual tab for surviving families comes to $16.5 million. Those payments don’t include the costs of fighting or caring for the veterans themselves. A Harvard University study last year projected the final bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would hit $4 trillion to $6 trillion in the coming decades.

That is just money though. When we think of costs of war, the cost of national security, the phrase we use in the military is “blood and treasure[2].”

The “Butchers bill,” as the British used to say and General Milley recently revived the phrase. The reference then is to the so-called hidden costs of war. There are over 2.3 million American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (compared to 2.6 million Vietnam veterans who fought in Vietnam); there are 8.2 million “Vietnam Era Veterans” (personnel who served anywhere during any time of the Vietnam War).

And at least 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or Depression. (Military counselors I have interviewed state that, in their opinion, the percentage of veterans with PTSD is much higher; the number climbs higher when combined with TBI.) Other accepted studies have found a PTSD prevalence of 14%; see a complete review of PTSD prevalence studies, which quotes studies with findings ranging from 4 -17% of Iraq War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some 50% of those with PTSD do not seek treatment — out of the half that do seek treatment, only half of those get “minimally adequate” treatment (RAND study). About 19% of veterans may have traumatic brain injury (TBI). Over 260,000 veterans from OIF and OEF so far have been diagnosed with TBI.

Seven percent of veterans have both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Rates of post-traumatic stress are greater for these wars than prior conflicts in times of peace. In any given year,  3.6% of the general population have PTSD (caused by natural disasters, car accidents, abuse, etc.). Recent statistical studies show that rates of veteran suicide are much higher than previously thought. PTSD distribution between services for OND, OIF, and OEF: Army 67% of cases, Air Force 9%, Navy 11%, and Marines 13%. (Congressional Research Service, Sept. 2010)

A recent sample of 600 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan found: 14% post-traumatic stress disorder; 39% alcohol abuse; 3% drug abuse. Major depression also a problem. “Mental and Physical Health Status and Alcohol and Drug Use Following Return From Deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.” (Susan V. Eisen, PhD).

More active duty personnel died by their own hand than in combat in 2012 (New York Times).

These statistics are sobering and often ignored. We all know soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, who through multiple deployments recently, or one lengthy deployment in previous conflicts or wars, either did not return or returned scarred, altered either mentally or physically: The Marine with PTSD, the soldier with a burned or missing face, or a prosthetic, or multiple missing limbs.

And yet in some ways I was most struck by the public’s reaction to the single sentinel standing guard during Hurricane Sandy back in 2012, standing watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a hurricane. The photo quickly went viral. The nation reacting with respect, awe, inspired, by what to all of us, was simply, DUTY. The Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard” have guarded the Tomb for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year regardless of the weather, since 1948. The Sentinel’s Creed which in part says “Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements, I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.” “I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability”That really captures the sense of Duty, not just Duty, but with 2 other conditions – to the utmost of our abilities And, second, with humility and respect. In short, how many times have you said, “Proud to serve” sometimes you said it ironically, even sarcastically, but mostly you meant it.

Not just as a cliché, but deep down in your heart and gut.And so we return, we return from the Argonne and Huertgen Forests. From Anbar and Helmand Provinces. From Aberdeen and Hood. We return to the state, to the  community that raised us and put its mark on us, far before the Army or Marines ever did. And we still retain the soul of a sentinel. The spirit of a servant. You who do not, would not,  think twice of standing your post in hurricanes or patrolling dusty streets in Baghdad, or on heaving decks in blizzards.In our Army Values, we uphold the ethos of “selfless service.”

“The basic building block of selfless service is the commitment of each team member to go a little further, endure a little longer, and look a little closer to see how he or she can add to the effort.” (Army Values) “Public service” — I was raised that there was no higher calling than public service. Members of my family have fought in almost all of this country’s wars since the very first one. And, I am equally proud that they have served as educators, as teachers, and as religious leaders, for that same length of time, since our country was founded.

But, today, the term “public servant” is often equated with politician or bureaucrat. It has taken on a somewhat or somehow unsavory connotation, probably because too often politicians or bureaucrats have hidden behind the label of public servant. So think of yourself as a community servant. Or simply as a servant.  You have returned with that same spirit. Or, to return to my theme, as a servant-sentinel. Because while I am here today to publicly thank you for your service, to remind you that there is a grateful nation, and to remind that nation that they need to be ever grateful and more grateful. I am also here for a larger theme. Veterans, your country still needs you. They need you precisely because you have the soul of a sentinel, and the spirit of a servant.And, you must be a servant.

[1] Each month, Irene Triplett collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service — in the Civil War.More than 3 million men fought and 530,000 men died in the conflict between North and South. Pvt. Mose Triplett joined the rebels, deserted on the road to Gettysburg, defected to the Union and married so late in life to a woman so young (50 years younger than him) that their daughter Irene is today 86 years old — and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls.

[2] Jonathan Swift, who was so fond of this phrase that he used it twice in a single sentence in this passage from his pamphlet The Publick Spirit of the Whigs, written in 1712:

“I cannot sufficiently commend our Ancestors for transmitting to us the Blessing of Liberty; yet having laid out their Blood and Treasure upon the Purchase, I do not see how they acted parsimoniously; because I can conceive nothing more generous than that of employing our Blood and Treasure for the Service of Others.”

mcdaniel21Blog author Brig. Gen. Michael C.H.  McDaniel, USA (ret.) is a professor and the director of WMU-Cooley’s Homeland and National Security Law Program. He served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Strategy. His responsibilities included supervision of the Department of Defense Critical Infrastructure Protection Program and the Global Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Policy.

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