From 1862 to 1865, the poet Walt Whitman worked as a nurse in D.C’s Civil War veterans’ hospitals.  At that time, nursing did not have the same educational requirements: as Whitman put it, he would “visit the sick and wounded of the Army, both on the field and in the Hospitals in and around Washington city.”  He kept memorandum books of his experiences; ten years’ later, he edited the number of entries down and published them as written.  In the introduction, he wrote:

In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.  I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours.  I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward.        . . . .

Such was the War.  It was not a quadrille in a ball-room.  Its interior history will not only never be written, its practicality, minutia of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested.

This interior history of U.S. military engagement lives on most acutely in veterans who have suffered battle fatigue, or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that on any given night, 200,000 veterans are without a home–and a total of 400,000 veterans homeless for at least a portion of the year.  Twenty-three percent of all homeless people in the U.S. are veterans.  Others estimate that it is more.  In 1998, one census carried out at Gospel Missions identified more that 40% of its population was former servicemen from Vietnam.  In 1996, and again ten years later, a one-day survey of 139 homeless shelters nationwide took a poll.   Here are the stats:

Korean War Veterans:  10% in 1996; 4% in 2006
Vietnam War Veterans: 43% in 1996; 39% in 2006
Gulf War Veterans:  10% in 1996; 16% in 2006.
Total veteran populations: 63% in 1996; 59% in 2006.

With a significant population of veterans already in the worst economic straits, the returning veterans of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue to put a burden on the systems of the VA, homeless shelters, local mental health and emergency medical practices,  and other city services.  For these veterans, I believe we should expect numbers of distressed military personnel very similar to those of the Vietnam War.   Vietnam was an insurgent war, with guerilla forces that blended into countryside, villages, and cities.  So too, Afghanistan, with unrelenting community diplomacy required; large numbers of civilians affected by Taliban measures and by miscalculations/collateral casualties.  The same can be said for Iraq, with an even more bewildering array of political alliances, hostile forces, and chaotic community fighting.

Sometimes one reads that PTSD started with Vietnam: as Whitman’s passage above shows, this cannot be true.  The name of the affliction has changed, but our veterans have always suffered from it.  And the community at large also remains much the same.  Whitman’s “fervid atmosphere”– we now call “at the mall”, or “at Wal-mart.”   In the end, the only remedy for the veteran’s painful, interior history of war  is Whitman’s solution: to be involved, either as advocates or personally, for the Veterans whose lives are at risk in combat and then return home to find that combat memories still leave their lives, and potential, in continued grave risk.  Whitman knew:

May 12 [1863]–A Night Battle, over a week since.–We already talk of the Historics of the War, (presently to accumulate)–yes–technical histories of some things, statistics, official reports, and so on–but shall we ever get histories of the real things?—-There was part of the late battle at Chancellorsville, (second Fredericksburgh,) a little over a week ago. . . 

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