Our National Debt
By BOB HERBERT
The actor Gary Sinise, who was talented enough to play both Harry Truman and George Wallace convincingly, has for many years been the prototype of the person who believes that supporting American troops requires more than simply waving the flag or plastering a bumper sticker on your S.U.V.
Quiet and unassuming in an era when entertainers seem more desperate than ever to draw any kind of attention to themselves (think of Tom Cruise using Oprah’s sofa as a trampoline), Mr. Sinise has been quietly entertaining the troops, supporting veterans organizations, recruiting veterans for theatrical projects and doing whatever else he could think of over the past quarter century to help the men and women who have served in the armed forces.
(Believe it or not, the low-keyed Mr. Sinise can rock. He plays bass in the Lt. Dan Band, a group named after a movie character, Lt. Dan Taylor, a disabled Vietnam veteran played by Mr. Sinise in “Forrest Gump.”)
Mr. Sinise’s latest campaign is to bring severely wounded American veterans out of the shadows and into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness to help ensure that they get the care and the level of honor and respect that they deserve. He is the national spokesman for a project called the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which will be the nation’s first public tribute to the legions of men and women who are living with, and often still suffering from, wounds that they sustained while fighting in the nation’s wars.
It’s interesting that an actor is one of the leaders of a campaign that will evoke the terrible hardships and real sacrifices of war as opposed to the glorified, sanitized rough and tumble that so often passes for warfare in Hollywood and on TV.
During a recent conversation with Mr. Sinise, I kept thinking of the many wounded soldiers and marines I’ve interviewed since the war in Iraq began — courageous individuals like Sgt. Eugene Simpson Jr., a former athlete from Dale City, Va., who was paralyzed when his spinal cord was severed in a roadside bombing; and Sgt. Tyler Hall, a baby-faced 23-year-old tough guy from Wasilla, Alaska, who made wisecracks about the bomb attack that shattered part of his face, broke his arm and three bones in his back, and caused him to lose his left leg below the knee.
“We need to remember,” Mr. Sinise said, “that of the 26 million veterans living today, more than 3 million are permanently disabled from injuries suffered in our nation’s defense.”
The disabled veterans memorial will cost $65 million, all to be raised from private sources, and will be built on a two-acre site in the heart of the nation’s capital, across from the U.S. Botanic Gardens. The memorial grew out of conversations that began more than a decade ago between the philanthropist Lois B. Pope and officials at Disabled American Veterans, an indispensable advocacy group that is headquartered in Washington.
Whether a particular war is popular or not, wise or not, should have no bearing on how the country treats those who volunteer to serve in the armed forces, are ordered into combat and then come home wounded.
The memorial will be a reminder of their continuing sacrifice, and a reminder as well of how unconscionable it is when politicians and bureaucrats cut corners on the care we give to veterans.
Last Friday, during a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, President Bush apologized to outpatient troops who had been housed in rundown quarters and forced to run a bureaucratic gantlet to get services to which they were entitled.
The foul-ups and the neglect mentioned by the president are symptomatic of widespread problems faced by wounded troops returning from combat. Most of those problems are never brought to the attention of the public. The troops, for the most part, suffer in silence.
The problems faced by some of the wounded troops after they come home would be more difficult to overlook if the country paid more attention to all of the troops who are wounded in the nation’s wars.
“We honor our fallen, those who have given their lives,” said Mr. Sinise. “But what about the ones who have sacrificed an arm or a leg, or their entire body to burns? Or the ones who can’t see anymore? Or can’t hear anymore?
“They go through their lives constantly reminded of what they have sacrificed for their country. We need to let them know that the nation is grateful for their sacrifice.”