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The debt we owe: Returning vets deserve continued, quality care

Nicholas Johnson, who spent a year in Iraq while a specialist in the Arkansas National Guard, eloquently summed up the hidden toll of war when he was interviewed by the Washington Post. “I left the war zone,” Johnson said, “but the war zone never left me.”

Now, back home and 32 years old, he struggles with post-traumatic stress, tinnitus and severe back problems. And after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many men and women like Johnson.

A poll by the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that more than half of the 2.6 million Americans who fought in the two post-9/11 wars came home with physical or mental health problems. Though 59 percent of them say the government has done a good or excellent job meeting their needs, a majority believe the Veterans Administration isn’t doing enough for veterans overall. More than half the respondents say they need more help coping with the return to civilian life.

The nature of veterans’ problems should not be a surprise to anyone, but the new poll suggests they are deeper and wider than previously assumed. Attitudes of local veterans interviewed by The Journal Gazette’s Frank Gray seemed to mirror the poll’s findings.

The VA backlogs that veterans find so frustrating must be addressed, and we need to find more effective ways to help veterans reconnect.

This weekend’s poll and stories are reminders that the nation is at least more open in confronting and dealing with the less visible wounds of war than in the past.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome has been a legacy of every conflict, for instance, but now it has a name, and seeking treatment is no longer considered shameful or un-heroic.

The poll and veterans’ comments made something else very clear. No matter how they feel about the wisdom of the wars they served in, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are largely proud of their own service and would do it again.

“I have no regrets,” Jeremy Rockstroh, a National Guardsman who served in Iraq, told Gray.

“I’d do it all again in a heartbeat,” said another local veteran, Pat Kemp, who was disabled in a fall while serving in Iraq. “It wasn’t about me. It was about serving my country.”