EDITOR’S NOTE: We Send Them to War – Are We Teaching Them How to Come Back?

When I met with veteran Jake VandenPlas a couple weeks ago for a story in this week’s paper about his new nonprofit organization, Door County Farm for Veterans, he quoted a study that I looked up after the interview. 

It’s called the Cost of War Project, done by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University. The project began in 2010 and was completed in 2020. Its main findings are numerous and chilling. 

It can’t come as a surprise to many that the cost of war far exceeds those who die in combat. Yet “war” as a concept is a strange phenomenon. It’s simultaneously completely familiar, yet utterly unknown to Americans who don’t serve. The statistics, then, can jar. The statistics should jar.

According to the study, the number of U.S. soldiers who have died during the post-9/11 wars is 7,052. That’s since 2001, and that figure includes the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, 30,177 veterans have died by suicide since the post-9/11 wars. Due to the stigma surrounding suicide, it’s believed that those numbers are even underreported.

“They send us over to war, and they don’t teach you how to come back,” VandenPlas said. 

Those words have haunted me since the interview. My fear is that the phrase is not a new one, that VandenPlas was not the one to first utter it. My fear is that the phrase could almost be a cliché.

I know it’s important to remember on Memorial Day all those who have given their lives for our country. Veterans Day – Nov. 11, a day to honor all veterans – almost seems like a lesser holiday. This could be human nature or cultural norms. Rarely do we honor and remember a person’s life before the obituary or memorial service.

I have been doing stories for Veterans Day and Memorial Day since I started in this business. I have listened to and reported the stories of many, many veterans over the years. A clearer picture evolves when listening to stories about the challenges of returning. How soldiers who get help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) face discrimination by employers and others. How a soldier’s résumé of responsibilities and experience gained during combat operations doesn’t translate to positions at home. How the sense of community is gone, how the leaders who inspire have all vanished, how the sense of purpose departed with the mission of protecting and serving a greater good.

“They send us over to war, and they don’t teach you how to come back.”

VandenPlas cannot have been the first veteran to utter that phrase. If he is, then we all need to listen. If he’s not, who is listening and what’s being done?