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A day to honor all veterans [Editorial]

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the massive invasion of Normandy that cost the lives of 9,000 Allied soldiers. It is a day not only for recalling the heroic efforts of those who stormed the beaches that day but of the World War II generation generally and, by extension, all who have served the United States in uniform during times of war.

The tributes to these brave soldiers will flow effortlessly off the tongues of politicians. Whether Democrat or Republican, it has become politically popular to laud veterans — and rightly decry when they are mistreated, including by the faceless bureaucrats within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We love our veterans — at least conceptually and as a group. But when it comes to actually dealing with those imperfect individuals who have been damaged in the fiery crucible of war? Then, perhaps not so much.

This week has been revelatory in that regard. The release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five long years, has provoked a level of anger and suspicion toward a POW not seen since the Vietnam War. Even before the 28-year-old soldier had been given much-needed medical care in Germany, much less returned to the U.S. and able to present his side of the story, he was being tried in absentia, smeared and condemned on cable television.

Instead of long-haired left-wing protesters tossing pig's blood on returning soldiers of the late-1960s or early 1970s, it was the blow-dried right-wing pundits who were declaring a returning prisoner of war a deserter or worse. Never mind that Sergeant Bergdahl's sudden, erratic behavior of five years ago — typified by a Washington Post account that villagers saw him walking around in a daze and refusing bread and water the day of his disappearance — sounds more like post-traumatic stress disorder than a carefully-plotted political defection.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, it was announced this week that $450,000 would be spent on a black steel fence to protect the downtown War Memorial building from the local homeless, quite a few of whom are veterans. The irony of this — spending money to keep veterans away from a building that memorializes their service — was not lost on homeless advocates.

This is not to suggest that protecting the War Memorial building and plaza is not justified under the circumstances — much as 20 years ago, the city's Holocaust Memorial had to be rebuilt and moved because it had been similarly mistreated. Nor are we suggesting the plight of the homeless veterans has been wholly ignored by the city. But to allocate that kind of money on a fence without spending just as much to help those who have been living on the War Memorial's steps seems, at best, insensitive and at worst, a quiet contempt for Baltimore's homeless, veterans included.

The reality of war is that it is not an adventure but a disease, and no soldiers survive such trauma unwounded. If we can't muster a measure of compassion for a U.S. serviceman who lived five years as a prisoner and was in deteriorating health — or give him the benefit of the doubt until he is at least well enough to discuss what happened — then how hollow are our tributes to D-Day veterans. Do we regard them as heroes or just ticking time bombs?

No doubt there is a growing mental health cost to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the legacy of which will plague this country for many years to come. Studies suggest more veterans from those conflicts have died from suicide than combat. One in six likely suffers from PTSD, and many more will be diagnosed with depression. War is ugly, and the lasting effect on people can be ugly, too.

The are legitimate questions to be asked about the Bergdahl case, the exchange of prisoners and the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. Likewise, it is reasonable to protect the War Memorial from further damage. But let both be pursued with a measure of empathy for the war veterans who have sacrificed much for the sake of our nation. On D-Day, we must remember that our enduring and sacred commitment to veterans extends to all who have served in uniform and not just those of generations past.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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