As a Vietnam veteran, I’m not surprised at what happened at Walter Reed Hospital. This country has not respected its veterans since World War II. The difference between World War II and subsequent wars is that almost everybody served in WW II, but fewer and fewer served in subsequent wars. The Korean War was close enough in time to WW II that some of the same respect carried over to Korean veterans, but they did not rate the “Greatest Generation” profusion of thanks that the WW II vets got. Of course, many Korean vets, like my father, were also WW II vets.
In essence, WW II vets looked out for each other. There were enough of them to dominate politics, business, and most other sectors of local and national life. Plus the war had come close enough to home, beginning in Hawaii and affecting every household with rationing, defense jobs, and other direct impacts, so that no one could ignore it, even if they didn’t fight. Korea was less intrusive; Vietnam even less, and Iraq, with no draft, almost not at all. How many households today are making significant sacrifices because of Iraq? Outside of military families, not many. And those profiting the most — Halliburton, and other unscrupulous defense contractors — seem to represent the very worst of America.
While Vietnam vets were off in Asia, their draft avoiding cohorts were getting ahead in life. But, especially because of avoiding the draft, they felt guilty about it, and therefore tended to do whatever they could to bring down the returning veterans, such as calling them war criminals, baby killers, etc. The draft dodgers tried to make the returning veterans into second class citizens, in order to make themselves feel better about not serving. This was especially harmful to the lower class soldiers, often poor and black, who came back and found it harder to get jobs and re-integrate into society. When I was working at the State Department in Washington, I was struck by the fact that there were probably more Vietnam vets sleeping on the steam grates outside of the State Department than there were working inside of the building.
Iraq is probably somewhat better for the veterans because there is no draft. Thus, their cohorts can feel less guilty about not fighting there, especially if they go around saying they support the troops. Saying they support the troops has the additional benefit of encouraging someone else (besides them) to go fight in Iraq. So, Iraqi veterans are probably treated somewhat better than Vietnam veterans were, despite abuses like Abu Ghraib and the various murders and rapes currently under investigation, which probably surpass the atrocities committed in Vietnam. These things happen; war is hell, but compared to Vietnam, the Iraqi vets pretty much get a pass in the atrocity department. Again, partly because to reduce these atrocities, you need better quality troops, college educated from good families, exactly the type that are avoiding going. But despite all the talk about supporting the troops, Americans really don’t. They go on about their lives. Hence, the atrocities at Walter Reed. And Iraqi vets should not think that once the war is over, having “veteran” on their resume will help them get a job; it will probably work against them.