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Kevin Cullen

Giving back to the other ‘1 percent’

There has been a lot of talk this election cycle about the 1 percent, the richest people in this country. But there’s been very little said about the other 1 percent — the 1 percent of Americans who have put their lives on the line and their blood in the sand for the past decade.

We will end up spending somewhere north of $2 trillion — that’s trillion with a T — on the wars that followed 9/11. What will we spend on the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines we sent to fight them?

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This is not a question that occupies most of the politicians looking for our votes on Tuesday, but it is a question that gnaws at Jack Hammond. He retired this year as a brigadier general after 30 years in the Army, and spent too much of that career on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He saw too many good people die or come home missing arms or legs or pieces of their souls. The wounds weren’t just from bullets and shrapnel. During his last tour, in Kabul, there were 180 men and women in his unit and in less than a year eight marriages broke up.

Hammond now heads up Home Base, the program at Massachusetts General Hospital that treats the invisible wounds of war, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder, that affect anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hammond was sitting in the dining room of a golf club a couple of weeks ago when a young soldier stood up before a bunch of businessmen from Sudbury and explained what an improvised explosive device had done to his brain.

The soldier came home to Massachusetts, checked himself into a motel, and tried to kill himself. “I couldn’t even do that right,” the soldier said, and Jack Hammond felt a lump in his throat.The suicide rate among returning veterans is three times that of the general population. “We’re going to have a lot of young veterans coming home who need help,” Hammond said.

And it’s not just the vets. Dr. Paula Rauch, who runs the family team for Home Base, says that for every warrior, there are 10 worriers. The families and loved ones of veterans have endured their own wars, and they often need help, but government rules don’t cover significant others.

Two battalions from Massachusetts, one from Melrose, the other from Worcester, returned from Afghanistan last summer. They saw heavy action. Thirty percent of those soldiers are out of work, Hammond says.

“While some vets have mental health issues, the main issue is finding a job, the sense of self-worth that comes with that,” Hammond said. “This transition from military life to civilian life is a stark contrast. Most of them just want a job.”

On the bright side, a lot of vets are heading back to school. “The new GI bill is huge,” Hammond said. “We’ve found that the vets who are going to school are also more likely to reach out for help. The challenges are for those who don’t have a job, who are not in school.”

As vets filter out into civilian life, much of the burden will fall on the Veterans Administration. “The VA in Massachusetts is one of the best,” Hammond said.

But by its own rules, the VA can’t treat vets who come out with anything less than an honorable discharge. What about the vets who earned a less than honorable discharge precisely because of what
they experienced on the battlefield?

“We help them,” Hammond said. “I think as we go forward, the public-private partnerships like ours are going to be crucial. The challenge is getting the bureaucracy to mesh.”

The military had to be flexible in Iraq and Afghanistan as the rules of engagement shifted with the sands. In engaging with our vets, we need to be as flexible in helping them.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been largely out of sight, out of mind, for most Americans. But Hammond believes most Americans want to do whatever it takes to help the veterans of these wars. As long as they know about it.

“When I meet with corporate folks, and tell them the problems our people are facing, it’s a news flash to them. They don’t understand the scope. But that’s because they haven’t been told. Once they understand, it’s like, ‘What can we do to help?’

“We’ve told our philanthropic donors, we expect the need to increase. It’s bothersome to consider the money we spent on the wars. We shouldn’t have to worry about taking care of veterans. It’s a moral obligation we all have. The other long-term piece of this is that if we betray their trust, the concept of an all-volunteer military will not last. It’s an experiment, but it’s only half done. The soldiers fulfilled their half. We have to finish the other half.”

Speaking of half, what if half the $2 billion that has been spent on the presidential campaigns had been set aside instead to help vets? What if the politicians and PACs who have bombarded us for months with insipid or intellectually insulting ads had used half of that money to help the veterans of these wars? Can’t we ask for more for the people of whom we’ve asked so much?

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.
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