What did you do in the war?

“What did you do during the war, daddy?”

If you’re a baby boomer, you grew up hearing that question asked of our fathers and friend’s fathers. Everyone did something during World War II.

My dad joked that he didn’t do much of anything, that he was based in England, and it wasn’t until he died years ago that we found a diary in which he occasionally mentioned the condition of men in the field hospital where he worked. They were the the bomber crews who flew suicide missions over Europe.

I often wonder if anyone in the next generation will learn about the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan in a history class, only to run home and ask daddy and mommy, “what did you do during the war?” and whether there might be some shame about the answer.

Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, references this in a piece he’s written on his blog today about a visit to Walter Reed Hospital on Saturday.

While “The Good Soldiers” is a superb work of reporting and non-fiction writing, what really struck me – more than the heartbreaking stories of soldiers working, suffering and dying, and then trying to adjust to life afterwards – was the dates. The regiment that Finkel followed to Iraq was sent there as part of the “surge,” and stayed there from April 2007 to July 2008. I don’t know about you, but I remember those years really well. I published my first book, I travelled all over the country with my show, including to New York City to accept a Peabody Award, I attended a lot of fun parties, I shared a lot of good times with my wife and kids. I had a grand time. And all during that period, I can’t say I spared more than a passing thought for the men sent into the meat grinder of the Iraq War. As Finkel notes, we were told the surge worked. We were told violence was down. And it was. Fewer Americans died during those months than in the terrible days of 2003 and 2004. (For a gripping account of the early days of the war, see Martha Raddatz’ “The Long Road Home.”) But some did die, and more were gravely wounded, and I wasn’t paying attention. Reading Finkel’s book, I felt some shame about that, and some regret, and conceived a wild notion to take advantage of an upcoming trip to DC to try to rectify that error.

When we salute veterans for their service now, we do so usually at a sporting event. We fly some planes over, we stretch out a big American flag, we stand and applaud while a vet gets a basketball at half court.

It’s all so noble and, in a way, glamorous, and self-serving. We feel better about having shown our concern and respect. Good for us. But we don’t see Walter Reed.

The first soldier was in bed, surrounded by six members of his family, including his fiance, who was slumped over asleep. His left foot was missing, and he was in obvious pain, and also obviously in a fog of painkilling drugs. I chatted with his family, and heard about his injury – an IED in Afghanistan. My memory of this first visit was foggy, because I was slowly realizing something that for the life of me I had not anticipated: the men I would be meeting were not in rehab, or in recovery. These were not the guys I had read about in magazine features, gamely learning to walk on prostheses or deal with TBI,, months after their injury. These were guys who had just been gravely hurt, weeks or in some cases days before. They were sitting with family members who – also just weeks or days before – had gotten a call from the Army or Marines saying, “Your son has been wounded in battle,” and had with hearts pounding and tears streaming thrown things into a bag and gotten on a plane for Germany or Washington. These wounds were fresh and raw, in every sense.

I will not, or can’t give you details of every visit I made that morning, even a day after. I sat by bedsides and, as Trudeau advised, asked them what happened, and heard their stories. As I listened, I tried to focus, and control my own feelings of horror and dismay, and my growing urge to walk out of the room and tell the Sergeant, patiently waiting outside, that I could take no more and needed to leave now. (The sergeant told me later that this does happen.)

Sagal didn’t meet Jason Edens of Franklin, Tennessee. His family took him off life support at Walter Reed on Friday, two weeks after he was shot in the head while on patrol in Afghanistan.

“I thought originally he made the wrong decision, but after he went to Basic Training and came out and graduated, I saw that the Army made him a man,” said his father, Jim Edens.

At the height of the war, my youngest son joined the Navy. He’s a paramedic and noted that he was told many Marines die trying to protect the Navy corpsman. That was what he’d end up being — a Navy corpsman. Some months later, just before he was to leave, he decided the Navy wasn’t a great idea afterall, and the recruiter, upon learning this, told him if he didn’t continue into the Navy, his family would never be proud of him.

Every time I read a story about Walter Reed, I wonder how many of the people there were told the same thing.

We have our own struggles making sense of wars. So does Germany, which is struggling with how to welcome German forces back from Afghanistan. “In Germany, we are not proud of our veterans,” Roderich Kiesewetter, the head of the Association of Reservists of the German Military Reserve Association and a member of Parliament for the ruling Christian Democrats, tells the Washington Post today.

“If you look at the U.S. guys, you look at the day they return from Afghanistan or Iraq. In Germany, there’s no one who is greeting them at the airport. There’s no comparison,” said Andreas Timmermann-Levanas, the head of the Association of German Veterans, who served in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has pushed for a veterans day.

On Saturday evening, I attended the annual “gala” fundraiser for the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During a few speeches, I heard a reference I hadn’t heard in several previous years — the needs of veterans. On a table nearby, DVDs offered advice on services for returning veterans.

These wars aren’t really going to end for more than a generation. There’s still time to come up with a good answer to the question.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I was fortunate to serve at a time of relative peace. Other than Lebanon and Grenada, there were few places where an American in uniform stod a good chance of being blown up or shot at.

    My last unit, the 1st Armored, was at the tip of the spear in Gulf War I. They went back to Iraq repeatedly for Gulf War II. Luck of the draw, I guess.

  • allie

    I hope there’s not shame involved in answering this question for today’s vets. Many–my husband included–went into the armed forces for better health care, education benefits, etc.–and let’s be honest, it’s not like they were the ones deciding where and how to start a war.

    I honestly hope my husband isn’t ashamed (and I tell him he shouldn’t be) of doing what he needed to do to provide for himself at the time he enlisted.

    That being said, my husband not vocal about his service in the Navy (although he doesn’t deny it and is willing to discuss it), he doesn’t stand up at sports events recognizing vets, and he’s wary of being pigeonholed by non-vets as a symbol of an often jingoistic pro-war movement.

    I suspect, most of all, what we’ll tell our grandkids is that, yes, Grandpa was in the war, but he was mostly out to sea, and that most of all, we’re thankful he never had to see the scale of action as the folks on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know I thank God every day that he never had to fire a shot at anyone, and that no one ever aimed directly at him.

  • Bob Collins

    Just so we’re clear here: The raising of the possibility of shame in answering the question, would be those who said, “I went shopping.” Or, “I stuck a ‘Liberate Iraq’ sign on my lawn.” Or, “nothing.”

  • jon

    Bob, I think these wars will end up being more like Vietnam or Korea then WWII.

    My uncle was in Vietnam, and we never asked about it, though I heard about it one day while helping him wash his truck. Looking back I think it was good for him to talk about it, though at 10-12 years old, I didn’t know it at the time.

    I don’t think these will be wars that the Vets will want to be asked about. You rarely see “ask some one who was involved in Vietnam what they did during the war” reports in schools like we had around WWII, I think people are becoming more sensitive to the fact that solders may not want to talk about their experiences in the war. I also hope that their nephews are there helping them wash the car when they are ready to talk about it.

  • Bob Collins

    // that solders may not want to talk about their experiences in the wa

    In his piece, I thought it was interesting that Sagal was urged to ask the wounded “what happened?”

  • Jim Shapiro

    The only shame should be on those who didn’t speak out against a war that they knew was wrong,

    and those who participated and treated noncombatants inhumanely.

    Isn’t that war stuff great?

    Follow the money.

  • Justin

    Bob, I want to begin by thanking you for continuing to shed light on issues related to the military and to veterans. I am a veteran myself, and while I never saw combat, I also find myself conflicted when asked about what I did “in the war” or while I was serving.

    Part of that conflict arises from, like the earlier commenter pointed out, not wanting to be pigeonholed by non-vets who don’t fully understand the nuances of military service, and partly out of personal guilt for NOT serving in combat like so many of my personal friends (medical issues precluded it). When my sons ask me about my military service, I am forthcoming, but it’s a little more difficult to discuss everything with people that I am not close to.

    I can only hope that this generation of veterans ends up with a more positive legacy of treatment than the veterans since WWII. Yes, there are more parades and welcome home ceremonies than there were during Vietnam, but the care after service that vets earn from organizations like the VA are woefully lacking in many areas. Fortunately, it seems that there is better awareness, and people (and most of the government) are doing whatever they can to work with and support veterans.

    To all my fellow veterans out there, thank you for your service, be it in combat or in peacetime. And especially thank you to the families and friends of those brave souls, for you are just as important as the people who put on the uniform.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Justin – Do you ever find it ironic that our armed forces are provided nearly infinite resources for killing bad guys,

    But are not given sufficient resources when it’s time to heal?

  • Justin

    Jim, that has been one of the biggest issues I have wrestled with in my years since serving. Maybe it’s the eternal optimist in me, but I keep hoping that the powers that be will someday finally get it right. Until then, I advocate as much as I can, and spread the word, and do my part to help out with what I am able to. I am lucky, the Sioux Falls, SD VA has been fantastic to me (I live in MN, but closer to SF than the Cities).

  • Rick Ellis

    I spent three years working in Birmingham during the early part of the Iraq War. It’s a huge area for the National Guard and at one point, we had as many casualties as anyplace in the country.

    What struck me about the troops I spent time with is that while as a nation we’ve gotten much better at things like better health care for the military, we’re still terrible when it comes to dealing with the long-term issues of the wounded.

    I interviewed one guy who had lost a hand and leg in an IUD explosion and he struggled in ways I still just can’t fully appreciate. I wish the press (and I’m as guilty as anyone) spent more time telling these stories.

    I think a lot of people would help these injured troops, if they only knew what was needed.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Justin – Well done, sir. With both the optimism and the service to your fellow vets and their families.

  • allie

    (Aha–got it. Thanks for the clarification, Bob. You can tell who my peer group is, when I automatically equate “shame” with “I enlisted.”)