Wars end, but they never truly go away.
In Phoebe Hall’s article on post-9/11 veterans, researcher Linda Bilmes suggests that in 20 years or so, the US will be spending billions of dollars to treat soldiers wounded in wars we can barely remember. This is hard for me to imagine. Even as fewer and fewer of us actually know a veteran, for those who do, the reality is that their experiences are ever-present in their lives, leaving no chance to forget, even if they want to.
I liken it to Gen Xers’ understanding of Vietnam through our parents who served. For me, I hear about it every time I visit my father-in-law and he recounts the same story of being shot out of a helicopter, rescued from a rice paddy by a sympathetic villager, and spending a year in the Boston VA hospital recovering from multiple injuries and malaria. For Phoebe, it’s in the tales of her father, Ros, an Air Force vet who served in Vietnam with the 602d Fighter Squadron. A true New Englander, he coped with the war by telling tales of the funny and the absurd, not the death and the trauma. But he carried those memories, too.
Throughout the reporting of this story—which took nearly nine months and spawned two feature-length articles—Phoebe would call her dad every time she left the Providence VA Medical Center or talked with a new source. A stalwart supporter of her career and writing, Ros loved to talk about all of Phoebe’s stories and discuss the angles and new things she’d learned. But this one was different—this, in some ways, was his story.
That makes it all the more tragic that he never got to read it. After struggling with lung disease for the past few years, Ros died on September 21, 2021. Phoebe completed this powerful and complicated piece of work through her grief and loss, and I can edit a 5,000-word article but still can’t find the right ones to make that feel better.
The Costs of War Project at Brown predicts that health care spending for post-9/11 war veterans will peak in the middle of this century, as the generation ages. If we learn anything from these wars and their “long tail of suffering,” let it be that we never forget, that we show up and we pay for their care and we try to get at least one thing right for them. As the wars fade from memory, the people who fought them shouldn’t.
This issue is for Roswell G. Hall III. I know he’d be proud of his daughter.