Modern wars are terrifying on so many levels. Unlike the trench- and front-based conflicts of decades past, today's military fighters battle with enemy combatants who hide in plain sight, commit suicide in public places using devastating explosives, and attack American convoys from afar using home-made IUDs. Of course, our service-people have access to the best, most advanced weapons and tracking systems in the world, which give them many advantages. And they train hard to be prepared when the unthinkable occurs, as it does every day. The fighting is more insidious, but our fighters step up to meet the challenges set before them.
Not only are the men and women battling terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan well-equipped to fight and win, the medical teams who swoop in when American service-people are wounded have more knowledge about healing broken bodies than ever before. Medical advances in treatment, surgery, and wound care have saved thousands of military lives. And since modern wars are being fought mainly in cities – unlike the battles that took place in remote Vietnamese jungles– medical evacuation is easier, quicker, and more effective.
According to the Wounded Warrior Project, “With advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor, an unprecedented percentage of service members are surviving severe wounds or injuries. For every U.S. soldier killed in World Wars I and II, there were 1.7 soldiers wounded. In Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, for every U.S. soldier killed, seven are wounded.”
Just how many American warriors have been wounded in the Middle East conflicts of the 2000s? It's hard to say for sure. A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service estimates 52,351 battle injuries between October 7, 2001and July 28, 2015, but the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has offered much higher numbers. As of December 2011, International Business Times reports that “...more than 900,000 service men and women had been treated at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics since returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the monthly rate of new patients to these facilities as of the end of 2012 was around 10,000.” According to those figures, well over 1 million injured warriors have returned from battle in the past 15 years. And the Congressional Budget office states that from 2000 to 2013, the number of veterans receiving VA disability payments rose by nearly 55 percent.
All this boils down to more wounded warriors returning to American soil, more injured veterans attempting to rebuild their lives as civilians in the face of life-altering injuries. While it's undeniably positive that fewer service-people are dying in battle, this growing number of wounded veterans creates a population that is safe from physical attacks but still plagued by internal battles.
“In addition to the physical wounds, it is estimated as many as 400,000 service members live with the invisible wounds of war including combat-related stress, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” reports the Wounded Warrior Project. “Another 320,000 are believed to have experienced a traumatic brain injury while on deployment.”
While the VA offers some ongoing support to these struggling warriors, much of the day-to-day care falls to their families, especially their spouses. The wives and husbands to our injured veterans are often forced to reconfigure their entire lives to cope with the broken bodies and haunted minds of their loved ones. Many quit their jobs to become full-time caretakers, helping with everything from deciphering treatment plans and consulting with doctors to driving their injured partners to endless medical appointments and helping them bathe, dress, and eat. And while the warriors themselves receive some small measure of recognition and support, their partners are often heroes in the shadows, working tirelessly without any acknowledgement.
It's disheartening to know that our ability to save more military lives has become a double-edged sword, but in many ways, it has. The growing number of disabled veterans is staggering, and their painreverberates throughout our entire nation. But just as their brave spouses dedicate their lives to recovery and rehabilitation, so can we all become part of the healing process. If you know a caretaker to an injured veteran, support that person in every way you can: Offer child care, help with errands, take on some yard work or cleaning, anything that might allows the caretaker to reserve their energy. Investigate and suggest resources and programs that might help both spouses heal their bodies and minds. Acknowledge the sacrifices that these families have made, and make them feel welcome in your community. And, of course, always be there to listen. Doing so will remind our wounded warriors and their loving partners that all they've lost has not been in vain.