FOR the five years the nation has been sending young men and women to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mainstay mantra of the comfortably safe in America has been, "We Support Our Troops." You see it everywhere. Political leaders can't stress it enough in their speeches and sound bites.
Countless citizens display the sentiment in symbols and messages slapped on the back of vehicles. Store owners hang signs in their windows. No question that "We Support Our Troops," even when the ground forces battling bombings and other insidious attacks in Baghdad complained that troop support was sorely lacking, from sufficiently armored vehicles and protective gear to adequate training and manpower.
OK, so we could have backed up the troops in the field better. But in every other way We Support Our Troops. Except when they come home badly broken. Then the physically and mentally mangled souls, who managed to live through brutal urban warfare, are on their own. Their government patches them up and leaves them to fend for themselves. Traumatic brain injuries - fast becoming the signature wound of the Bush war - leave some returning soldiers more dependent on a support system that doesn't support.
When the Washington Post broke the story recently about the shocking decay and mismanagement at the renowned Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a political maelstrom erupted in the nation's capital. It got worse as the story of substandard living conditions and poor medical treatment for injured troops grew beyond the Army's flagship veterans hospital. Distressing accounts from veterans across the country about systemwide neglect and mistreatment flooded the media.
Is this how we support our troops? Washington's response to the unraveling nightmare of wounded soldiers was predictable. There was plenty of shock and awe and indignation to go around. Heads rolled, hearings were held, comprehensive reviews and independent commissions were called for, and, within 24 hours of the depressing Walter Reed revelations, the military was painting rooms, killing roaches and mice, and removing mold and rot at the facility.
Better late than never, right? Top military brass accepted responsibility for the failures and admitted "We have let some soldiers down." President Bush promised to do right by the troops and Vice President Dick Cheney told a gathering of Veterans of Foreign Wars "There will be no excuses - only action." On Capitol Hill lawmakers lined up for subcommittee hearings and sympathized with soldiers testifying about the bureaucratic disarray, indifference, and bad health care they endured.
The swift reaction of government and military leaders to the problem is a welcome development, but why did it take a series of stories in the Washington Post last month to get anyone's attention? Reports of substandard conditions go back several years. To hear shattered war veterans and their families tell it, they've been explaining their frustrations with the government to anyone who will listen - but few gave it serious attention.
Numerous letters sent to lawmakers or exhaustive appeals pushed up the chain of command in the military have been largely to no avail - until now. Relatives of incapacitated soldiers fight their battles with e-mails, phone calls, appointments - anything to get noticed, to prevent a loved one from falling through the cracks. Pity those with no one to raise hell on their behalf. At Walter Reed, top officials had reportedly been hearing complaints about how soldiers were living and being treated for more than three years.
There were online magazine stories and separate reports on the substandard conditions at the hospital's psychiatric ward, on the problems of screening people with brain injuries, on the complex disability program that doesn't work. Maybe it's because less than half of 1 percent of the population in the United States is actually taking part in this war that it's easier for people in high places to pay lip service about troop support.
But if you're driving around with "We Support Our Troops" decals, it's time you stood for more than a slogan. Call or write or e-mail your representatives in Congress today and copy a missive to the White House. Ask your elected leaders how they could allow the young men and women they sent into harm's way to be treated like dirt instead of with dignity. Ask the President if his postwar planning failed to account for their needs just as it failed to account for a war four years long and counting.
If your support for the troops goes beyond bumper sticker bravura, do it.