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February 05, 2011

jsf guest blogs

Julia Spencer Fleming, award-winning, best-selling author and all around hip girl, has a new, long-awaited book coming out in April. And she has a few things on her mind.


One Was a Soldier: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery (Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries)

Crazy weather we’ve been having, right? What with the thunder snow, and the cyclone in Australia--and speaking of disasters, have you been reading about Charlie Sheen? And did you know there’s a war on?

Yeah, I know if you click on Google News headlines, you won’t see anything about it. But it’s out there. Let me give you a story from a different source, KPBS in San Diego.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has released a new, unpublished report on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) under the Freedom of Information Act. Here are the numbers:

625,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran patients have flooded into VA. That’s 10,000 new patients per month, or a new patient every five minutes. 313,000, or more than half, are diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. The average lifetime cost in healthcare and benefits per patient is $1,000,000.

-Jan. 25, 2011

Think about that for a second.  In the time it takes you to read this blog entry, another soldier, sailor, airman or marine will have come to the VA looking for treatment. Treatment for depression. Addiction. PTSD. Traumatic brain injury. Disability due to puncture wounds, shearing wounds, shrapnel wounds. If you break for a cup of coffee, it’ll be two veterans. Check your Facebook status? Three.

Chances are, though, you don’t know any of these men or women. Military enlistment as a percentage of the American population has been trending downward ever since Congress ended the draft in 1973. Right now, only about one-half of one per cent of the American population is under arms. That .05% comes from economically disadvantaged families, from small rural towns, and from the south. They come from places and homes where the tradition of military service maintains a precarious toe hold.

It used to be different. Between the end of WWII and the start of Vietnam, hundreds of thousand of men (it was almost all men in those days) were drafted or enlisted. Everybody had a dad, a brother, an uncle in one of the services. Everybody had a picture of some shaved-bald young man in a starched uniform hanging on the wall or propped up on the sideboard. If you heard of a serviceman who died or who was injured, you’d think, Thank God it wasn’t Eddie. Or Ralph. Or Dennis. In my mother’s generation, every one of her brothers-in-law served. Her brother was career navy. She married an Air Force lieutenant--my father--whose B47 bomber crashed during a training mission in the Adirondacks. When she married again--my adoptive dad--he was an Air Force vet. My sister and I both married veterans, and two of our stepbrothers served.

But we’re a rarity. Most of my friends have to go back to WWII before they can name a family member in the military. Over the past eight years, all my children have been in classrooms where everyone sends a card to “Any Soldier”--but no one in those classrooms writes to an uncle or big sister overseas.


So what happens in a country where everyone is proud of Our Armed Forces but almost no one knows a soldier? We throw wonderful parades and allow mentally-ill vets to spiral into homelessness. We slap magnets on the back our SUVs and shake our heads at news stories about the number of post-deployment suicides. We vote for politicians who wave eagles and flags and we vote for spending cuts that freeze medical benefits for veterans.

Does this bother you? It bothers me. This is what I did about it: I wrote a book about five vets from one small town in New York struggling to come to terms with life after war. I’m pretty good at writing characters, and my hope is that some of the people who read my novel leave it feeling as if they know and care about a soldier or a marine. Personally. Intimately.

What can you do about it? Consider donating to the National Military Family Association or the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust. Volunteer one day a month to your area VA hospital or the local homeless shelter. Use one of the local or national job-search boards to hire a veteran. Pay attention to how your representative’s votes affect services to military men and women and their families.

How long has it been? Five minutes? Okay, we’ve got a marine waiting. Hello, corporal. Welcome to the health care system the American people have set up for veterans. How can we help you?

Julia Spencer-Fleming is the Agatha and Anthony-award winning author of the upcoming One Was A Soldier. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter



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Thanks Julia. I wish more people felt like you. My dad is a veteren, both my son's were in the Navy. The youngest is deployed right now and I can't wait to have him home safe.

Last week a sailor on my son's ship was lost overboard. Your heart jumps when hear a newsbite that includes the words overboard and the name of your son's ship. Our kids, and most of them are just kids, do a vital and dangerous job for their country for pay that most of us wouldn't walk across the street for and I am thankful for every single one of them.

I have 2 sons who were in the military. One retired from the Air Force, the other was a Marine. My niece is a Navy nuke. My other niece's son's fiancee is going to be a Navy nuke. If anyone would like to borrow some of my family, I'm willing to share.

Living as I do, in Israel, where we have universal conscription, and seeing the changes wrought in all my children, and their friends, by being in the army for three years, I think the US made a big mistake in ending the draft. Not that I want a country at war, far from it. But I do think that many of today's US soldiers really haven't got the necessary fiber to handle the difficulties of military life in a war zone, nor, as you write, are they recognized as being intrinsic to US identity but are somehow marginal to it, and so do not get the support they deserve.
I would be interested to know what the VA figures are for WWII veterans, especially in terms of mental health problems following service. We know that Vietnam vets suffered greatly; I presume Korean vets fell somewhere in between, as the Korean War wasn't perceived as an existential threat to the US in the way WWII was.

We're in a very different era now, without a draft. Good call to arms, Julia.

Another issue I've recently become aware of in small towns: Badly wounded vets have no choice but to live in nursing homes with no other residents their own age. What a lonely life! At my house, we've been collecting books, at least, that might appeal to the one young guy who lives in my mother's assisted living neighborhood.

I'm wiping tears.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. There are no words.

Not that the cause is not good or needed, but your perception of the modern army is off. Way off. I live in a large city, graduated from a private college and grew up in a middle class life. At least a dozen of my college classmates are Iraq war vets. I have friends in service now, and as I am getting older, the children of friends. Our soldiers come from all walks of life. They volunteer to get off the farm, true. But they also volunteer because they love their country and are willing to go to war for it. For the last ten years, every volunteer has faced the very real possibility of going to combat, something that was more theoretical when I was 18.

I work in a well to do neighborhood. I see homes with star flags every day. One day, I was on the porch of a house with a three star service flag. I thought perhaps it was for several generations of service, so I asked the man at the door. He said, no he did not have three family members in service, he had six. He couldn't find a 6 star flag.

There is a very real reason we have more wounded vets, better battle field medicine. Many of today's wounded would have been dead a generation ago. We also treat the mental effects of war differently than a generation ago. PTSD existed long before it had a name or a treatment. I know many WWII vets who suffered in silence for 30 or more years before realizing there was treatment for why they felt the way they did.

Once again, you identify a real need and I support it. I wanted to clarify some generalizations I think were over broad.

Perhaps as a follow up, you look at newspaper reports from 1946-48 at how America really looked at returning WWII vets. Start with Back home by Bill Mauldin.

Yo Tea Partiers, VA benefits are not government waste. Take the knife to something else.

A co-worker is leaving this morning for Pensacola. his brother is being medically discharged from the Navy and needs help moving home. The brother will be needing care for the rest of his life.


You're absolutely right that I paint with broad strokes in this brief piece. And I suspect many of the folks who might comment here today do, in fact, have friends or loved ones under arms--when you've got someone in the service, this sort of writing trips your flag. .05% of the American population is still a very large number--but it's not as large as 99.95%.

Judith, you're an example of an increasing tendency for military service to run in certain families, who produce more than their share of soldiers, sailors and marines. While it's a wonderful tradition, it's damn hard on the families involved.

Those pictures are worth a ten million words, but your words are good too, Julia. I know one guy in Afghanistan, married to one of my close friends, and that keeps it personal for me, but whether we know one, none, or a dozen, the fact is that once they're home, and especially if they're injured, mentally or physically, they are personae non grata, certainly as far as the national budget goes. I wish we could funnel more of that defense spending into taking care of the veterans.

Yes, sister, you make me cry. Thank you. ANd inf act, because I am a reporter, there are some things I can do--and because we ARE sisters and have ESP, I am in the midst of working on a story about his right now. Watch this space..I guess I mean--whatch Channel 7. I'll tell you when. (I wish I could tuck your book into a few shots...hmmm..might be the last story I ever do.)

Your new book is fantastic...and reading just the compelling beginning scenes introduces us to people who we know aren't far from reality.

You're amazing!

Thank you, Julia. Had to quit crying to see keyboard. My late father was a WW II vet & his birthday is coming up soon. I have so much respect & gratitude for those serving & those who have served in our armed forces. I have a friend whose husband is in Afghanistan. I'm so looking forward to this new book of yours. I buy them all, devour them & put them on my keeper shelf to read over & over when I need to know there are those who still care in this world. Thank you for the gift of your writing.

If the draft were re-instituted, if Congress knew they might be putting their own sons and daughters in harm's way, they might not be so quick to send those less-fortunate to be the world's peace-keepers. Just saying.

Thank you for pointing out what many people never think about. I have shared with you before that my daughter is an Air Force vet; suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues. When she signed those papers at eighteen I had no idea that such a different young woman would return home. Our family is one with a long military tradition. My father served in the medical corps in the European Theater during WWII. He NEVER talked about it. My brothers both served during Vietnam. Many uncles, cousins, and nephews have served as well. We live in the south. I don't know if that makes much of a difference. I have been teaching for 31 years in a rural county school system in Alabama. Great schools and a great system. But, the military is still a "way out" of an area that doesn't have a lot to offer. The training they receive in the military opens a lot of doors.
Again, thank you. Your books always touch on social issues in such a way that I feel differently or at least can see another point of view after reading them. I am looking forward to One Was A Soldier and thank you for using your talent for educating us all.


I've often thought that. My husband (ex-Air Force) sensibly points out that a volunteer army has better-trained and more experienced members because the terms of enlistment can be longer than those in a conscripted army. On the other hand, I can't help but agree that if the cost of waging war was spread around more equitably, we'd see a lot of changes in the way we care for active duty members, vets, and their families. A LOT of changes.

dear dear dear Julia,

I'm the daughter of a soldier and the sister of a soldier and I was your fan long before this post---a bookseller in Montgomery Alabama pressed your work into my hand years ago and said I would adore you, and I DID and I DO----but never more than right now.



I too am in a situation similar to yours: my son is in the Army Reserves now, after being active duty in Iraq during it's bloodiest period. He saw things that continue to haunt his dreams at times, and he lost one of his closest friends to an IED on Halloween 2007. I am married to a retired (career) Army MP, and my step-daughter is Army National Guard (who had dreams of going active duty until she became a single mom). My husband and I (and 4 of our combined 6 kids) live in a military community near a midwest air force base. My husband currently works as a VA police officer.

All this is a long way of saying we live this life you have described. We see/know friends and family who are currently serving or have served. We see the results of broken bodies and broken minds first hand. And yet my son is in the process of returning to active duty. Why? Because he is a soldier. He loves this country and what it stands for, and it provides his family with the things they need most--medical insurance, housing help, and a steady paycheck. The army did for my son some of what I couldn't as a single mom: it gave him pride in himself, it pushed him to be the best he could be, and it taught him so much about himself, his strengths, and it gave him male role models he could believe in. I have only been remarried for 2.5 years, but he has connected to my husband in ways he never connected with his father, and it makes me so glad.

My son is one of the lucky ones. His scars are few and he is whole. And as much as I worry about him being in a war zone again, I trust that he knows even more than I do what he is up against, and still he wants to serve. I wish more young people felt as he does. But I also agree that we, as a country, need to support our returning vets. Not given them handouts per se, but make sure that they continue to have the skills and the assistance they need to return to civilian life after they have given so much for our country. They are heroes in my mind because they did what was expected of them despite their fears, and they paid a high price in return.

Thanks, Julia. I agree that all veterans should have the best medical care and support services that we can provide. It's amazing to me that the US Congress, with one of the best health care programs in the world, is not willing to provide additional medical care and services to these brave men and women.

Thanks, Julia. I live in a very large military community and remember what it was like knowing that kids I used to teach -- kids who were my daughter's friends -- were marching on Baghdad (one, a reservist, did *3* tours with the Marines). Although the military recognizes PTSD and treats it, I still see a huge barrier in the form of kids unwilling to admit the problem for fear it makes them look weak in the eyes of both their fellow service members and civilians.

Let's remember, too, our female service members, who face a real and significant risk of sexual assault FROM THEIR FELLOW SERVICE MEMBERS. It makes my blood boil.

Thanks for your suggestions - I'll be looking into them so I can know that I've done my part.

Thank you!

My parents served in WWII, my wife is ex-Army who served in Korea (honorably discharged, although DADT was snapping at her heels), and her brother just retired from the Air Force, where he served three tours in Iraq.

And I think it's sadly typical that we don't talk a lot about the things they saw, but it's always right there, just under the surface. Thank you for bringing it out into the light where it needs to be talked about!

Thank you Julia. Like several others I have no words. We need to honor all those who've served and make sure they get the care and compassion they deserve. I echo Harley...defense spending should take into consideration those who come home wounded, even if the wounds are invisible.

My great niece is in Kuwait now and other family members are in Afghanistan. I, too, have family members who had long careers in the military and some of their children are continuing that tradition. However, I do agree with you that many of the young people today join because there are few alternatives in today's economy.

I lost friends and HS classmates during Viet Nam and saw many of my students end up there during my first few years of teaching. Some were lost later to the ravages of that war whether it be a result of severe injuries, drugs or just not being able to cope with what they'd seen.

A local VA hospital in St. Louis has been cited yet again for unsanitary conditions in the o.r's. It is the same one that made headlines a few months ago because people had been exposed to HIV and Hepatitis because dental instruments had not been sterilized. My brother died in that same hospital 30 years ago because they did not detect an ulcer until it perforated and ultimately killed him a week later. Granted he was in very poor health (most of it caused by alcoholism etc)but he would not have suffered the way he did the last week of his life if they had detected and treated the ulcer before it perforated.

If our veterans received the same kind of care Rep. Giffords is getting then it would be a just world. I'm certainly not saying she does not deserve it I'm just pointing out the inequity of it all.

I'm so very proud of my niece and all those who serve our country. Our soldiers, sailors,airmen, and marines must not be allowed to fall through the cracks when they return from where ever they serve.

I've read all your books and can't wait to get this one. Hopefully it will shed some light on the problems our veterans face.

What a wonderful and important post, Julia. Thank you.

My Dad served in WWII and Korea, and I have two friends who are serving now. One is back from Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD, the other is still over there.

I will order your book immediately and pass the word.

Julia, you so eloquently write about realities most people don't even know, let alone understand. All the arguments for these wars do not in any way compensate for these losses. 3,000 people died in the World Trade Centers and the other two sites, but more than a half million citizens are injured and tens of thousands have died. And for what net outcome? Hardly any. It defies sense.

Did you also know that a large contingent of our military is not even American-born? When my nephew was in the Army he shared barracks with soldiers from El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and lots of other places. You rarely hear about this, either.

A cousin's son has been to Iraq and Afghanistan on four tours of duty. He would go again, too. My youngest daughter graduated from The Citadel, and she has seen many classmates and other friends come and go from the Middle East. Her boyfriend leaves next June for Afghanistan. Since he's an MP in the National Guard he will be going into what will very likely be a dangerous situation. My heart aches for all of them.

And then there's this: In Chicago this past week a driver for the Illinois National Guard was the only person who could pick up and deliver to the hospital a pregnant woman about to deliver her first child. If his unit had been deployed overseas she would have had to deliver her own child alone, with no emergency personnel able to reach her in the blizzard, possibly for more than a day. The National Guard was meant to guard our country on our own soil, not on foreign soils. How does it "keep us safe" when so many units are no longer here to so?

Thank you, Julia. I get weepy when I hear about the sorts of problems that our vets face when they try to readjust to civilian life, the financial, medical and other problems that plague them. My civil service job brings me in contact with many of our local wartime veterans and with a lot of active duty military people, too. Many of the vets I have come to know through my job have disabled vet status, while others are in the process of being evaluated for disabilities. There's a VA hospital in the next town over from ours; some of the disabled vets I know told me that they moved here because of the proximity to the hospital. It makes me so angry when one of them tells me how long he/she has been fighting to be classified as disabled due to injuries suffered in military service, or due to PTSD! One young man told me that he needs spinal surgery - he was thrown from a jeep that was blown up in Afghanistan - and doesn't want to have the surgery until he can get a disability rating and have the surgery taken care of through the VA. I have some experience with back problems but nothing at all like his - and I don't know how he can function with the sort of pain he must be living with. And this pleasant young man has a young family to support. He was delighted to find out how much help is available through our town; I wish we could do more for him and his fellow vets.

I had friends who served in the military during the Vietnam war. My dad and his five brothers all served in the military. Dad and three of them served in WW II; the others were in the service after that war but did serve during the time of the Korean Conflict. They had a couple of uncles who were career Navy. I'm convinced that my dad and at least one of his brothers suffered from PTSD. My dad refused to talk about his war experiences, which I didn't realize until I was in high school. He used to tell us a lot about the friends that he made and some of the more humorous aspects of military life. When I was in high school, the year that I was studying about WW II I asked him some war-specific questions. He started to respond, then burst into tears and left the room.

Thanks for reminding us of the people who serve our country.

I'm simply overwhelmed at everyone's stories here. Perhaps that, above all, is what the rest of us can do: talk openly about the experiences of our friends and families, so that the many, many people in our lives who DON'T know service members develop--and maintain--a sense of what the real cost of war is.

You hear "Freedom isn't free," so often it's become a kind of smug cliche. And I'm afraid the people who say it aren't particularly inclined to shoulder THEIR portion of the bill.

Thank you, from a Navy wife whose husband is currently deployed to the Persian Gulf, for your wonderful post. It's nice to know our soldiers and sailors are appreciated.

Julia, what a very fine and important post, and I have no doubt your novel is equally so. Thanks so much.

I have always found your novels to be moving, and this post is, of course, more so. As a psychotherapist, I have worked with veteran of Vietnam, Korea, and, perhaps, the most poignant, was an older gentleman who was shot down in WW 11, and spent the rest of his time in a POW camp. No, that's not true, they were all moving, and I have tears in my eyes as I remember them. Thank you for this. I like that that you don't shy away from hard truths. And I look forward to your new book.

Thank you so much for this post. My parents are both vets of WWII, my brother was in the Navy in Vietnam, two cousins were in Vietnam (one in the Army, the other in the Marines), my husband put in 26+ years in the Army (doing two tours in Vietnam and one in the "first" Gulf war), both sons did a hitch in the Navy.

I, for one, am so tired of the "Thank you for your service" stuff. You want to thank my husband for his service? Then call your congressperson and senators when they have a vote on military benefits and insist they vote "yes". No more cutting benefits. Insist they vote for realistic pay raises. Insist they vote against changes in retired pensions and pay (there's a move to completely overhaul the military retirement system as we know it, because some "experts" say it's not sustainable. Codswallop! The armed forces promise, no, guarantee, certain things to those who make a career of the military. Now, one "suggestion" is to delay a retired service member his or her pension until said member turns 63. Speaking personally, I can tell you that my husband's retired pay is a godsend. But we aren't living high off the hog. And I don't know how we would have managed when he first retired without that pension.).

And, finally, ask your elected representatives why their medical plan is not available to wounded vets and their families. I don't think you'll get any kind of honest answer from them.

Reading all these stories makes me realize that my grandfather was (I think) in WWI, my father was in the Navy in WWII, my brother was in the Navy, in between wars, and I have cousins who've done military service, some in Iraq and/or Afghanistan -- but I pray that my children do not have that calling. Because I don't trust us, the civilian population, to take care of our soldiers as well as they take care of us.

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Thanks, Julia, for this post. I have a teambuilding event I do called Operation Military giving. The companies pack and send boxes to our military overseas.I always ask if there's anyone in the group who was in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan or whereever the boxes are going. Always. Those people are asked to speak, if they want, and they always have something powerful to say. I send boxes to 'anysoldier', too, with items I know are useful and wanted.

My nephew is a social worker at the VA Hospital, so he's doing what he can. He knows the need.

Thanks for reminding us.

Thanks for this post, and the book. I'm living in a city with 4 bases, so I know a lot of soldiers and have my whole life. One of my oldest friends is still in, and my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law just returned from Doha.

I did something by writing about it, too, in How to Bake a Perfect Life. And others.

I will look forward to reading the book!

The subject that you have explained in the article is too fantastic. It’s like a dream come true. You have bought the topic live in front of my eyes and made me think the same manner. You have just too wonderful ideas.

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