Monday (November 12) marks the observed Veterans Day — and also the 25th anniversary of the dedication of "The Wall," the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. And on the holiday, the enduring toll the battle in Iraq has taken on American troops can be summed up by one phrase: the Invisible War.
That's how Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and author of the Iraq memoir "Chasing Ghosts," refers to the war that has been raging since 2003 and has had a startlingly different effect on veterans returning than the war it's most often compared to, Vietnam.
"This is not a drafted army, it's a professional force, so folks are staying in longer, they're older and they're more likely to have families," he said of the average age of Iraq warriors, which is around 27. "But those who are being killed and injured are disproportionately young — the people you played soccer with and went to high school with."
Another reason Rieckhoff calls the Iraq war "invisible" is that while 12 percent of the U.S. population served in World War II, less than 1 percent have suited up for Iraq. "The numbers are less in terms of casualties [than Vietnam or World War II], because the numbers overall are smaller. That means less people are being impacted, so our generation is uniquely disconnected from the war and how it's affecting veterans."
Also, unlike Vietnam, where soldiers typically did one tour and were rotated back home, some Iraq troops are returning to the front three or four times for long stretches, with many of the fighters becoming disconnected from what's going on in society back home, making for a hard time re-integrating when they return. "Here, people are worried about 'American Idol,' and over there they're ducking for cover in Fallujah," Rieckhoff said. Though medical advances and the use of body armor are helping to save the lives of Iraqi soldiers who might have died in previous wars, Rieckhoff said traumatic brain injuries could end up impacting 10-20 percent of veterans, a number that might end up between 150,000 and 300,000 people.
President Bush has often resisted comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, but the two biggest wars fought by the United States in the past 40 years share at least one sobering similarity: the toll they've taken on American troops and their loved ones. (The following figures are compiled from Globalsecurity.org, Time, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Combat Area Casualty File, National Archives, Walter Reed Medical Center, Discover, the Iraq Body Counts Web site, The New York Times, The American War Library and Defense Manpower Data Center.)
» Number of soldiers who have died in combat:
» Average age of soldiers killed in combat:
» Total number of soldiers deployed:
Vietnam: More than 9 million (1965-1975); 543,000 at peak
Iraq: 1.5 million (2003-2007); 162,000 at peak
» Wounded in action:
Vietnam: More than 300,000, with just over 150,000 requiring hospitalization
» Women killed in war theater:
» Missing in action:
» Mental-health problems:
Vietnam: 18.7 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from a stress disorder
Iraq: One in three Iraq veterans will face mental-health issues or post-traumatic stress disorder; nearly a quarter of all U.S. troops serving in Iraq are coming home with problems requiring mental health or medical treatment.
» Civilian casualties:
Vietnam: Between 2 and 5 million
Iraq: Officially 76,000-83,000 since 2003, with unofficial estimates of up to 655,000
Another major difference between Iraq and Vietnam, according to Rieckhoff, is that Iraq veterans are returning even more confused than their peers when it comes to the mood in hometowns and bases. "People say, 'I hate this war, how can I support the troops?' " he said of a phrase he hears often. "I say, 'You don't have to support the war, but support the warriors.'
"I think the American public understands that, but there's still confusion, anger and anxiety around it and soldiers are coming back and saying, 'I just don't want to deal with it,' " he continued. "So they want to be around people who are like them and understand them, and that's isolating. I walked around New York today and this doesn't feel like a country at war. I was at a Veterans Day parade on Sunday and there were 20,000 people there and 70,000 at the Giants game. That's why this is an invisible war: When they come home and put that uniform on the shelf, there's nothing that tells anyone, 'I was in the war.' Not everyone comes back wounded, but they all come back changed."