Remembering the forgotten veterans

There was a lot of talk in the recent election about America's "1 percent" – the wealthiest residents. But another segment of the population often was overlooked in these discussions: the fewer than 1 percent of Americans who currently serve on active duty in the military.

This is the smallest share of Americans serving in the armed forces since the era of peace between World War I and World War II, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. As the number of Americans in the military decreases, there seems to be a growing cultural divide between those who fight increasingly intractable wars overseas and the other 99 percent back home.

While fewer U.S. troops are in the line of fire, many soldiers face their toughest battles after they return home. Veterans today confront high rates of unemployment, and many have to contend with post-traumatic stress disorder and even homelessness. The suicide rate in the military is the highest it’s been in 10 years. A recent study by the Associated Press indicates that suicides now outpace combat deaths.

This week, The I Files is featuring a selection of stories highlighting veterans, their families and the array of challenges soldiers face when they return home. Contributors include the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting, PBS, NPR and the Marines, as well as acclaimed independent filmmakers.

 

Several stories this week tackle issues regarding an often-overlooked segment of the veteran population: the women who serve and the unique challenges they face.

"Her War” takes us to L.A.'s Skid Row, where an increasing number of female veterans live on the streets. In recent years, the number of homeless women vets has doubled, making them the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in the country. Today, more than 3,000 female veterans are living on the street. Director Mimi Chakarova investigates this crisis tells the stories of some of these women and their struggles.

This excerpt from the documentary “Lioness” also profiles a group that seems to have been glossed over in recent history: the first U.S. women to be sent into direct ground combat, a violation of American policy.

The all-female Lioness teams were created during the Iraq war to help support combat troops by performing tasks that men could not – such as conducting pat-downs of veiled women and searching female-only sanctuaries. But the Lioness teams ultimately were engulfed in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, a situation for which they never had been properly trained, because Congress bans women from participating in direct combat operations. Directors Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers profile the veterans of Team Lioness as these women struggle to find a place in a world that is largely unaware of their experiences and the sacrifices they have made.

In “The Invisible War” by Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick investigates the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military. Dick highlights shocking statistics, like the fact that a female U.S. soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than be killed by enemy fire. This film prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to announce substantial changes in policy that strengthen the prosecution of rape in the military.

 

Coping with injuries

For some veterans, the most intense battles begin only after they return home.

NPR offers a devastating portrait of Sgt. Victor Medina, a decorated combat veteran who was forced to fight to receive proper treatment at Texas' Fort Bliss after suffering a brain injury in a roadside blast in Iraq. Since the explosion, Medina has had trouble reading, maintaining his short-term memory and performing simple tasks. He refuses to give up, but Medina describes his new life as "struggle after struggle."

War Torn: An Iraq War Veteran’s Story” follows Ian Welch as he recovers from life-changing injuries incurred in the explosion of an artillery round during his first combat tour in Iraq.

Even without serious injuries, many veterans face an uncertain future once they return home and try to resume their lives outside of the military, especially in the current economic climate. More than 150,000 veterans are unemployed, according to PBS’ "Need to Know." “The Enduring Sacrifice” follows several veterans over the course of a year as they work to build new lives and careers as newly minted civilians.

We’re also re-running the most popular story on The I Files to date: an excerpt from the Emmy award-winning film, “Where Soldiers Come From.” This sobering documentary follows the four-year journey of childhood friends as they grow from reckless teenagers to soldiers to young veterans coping with the silent war wounds of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

Children of troops

According to the Department of Defense, 44 percent of active duty military personnel are parents. Their children face unique challenges, including frequent moves, the extended absence of a parent and constant fear for his or her safety, as well as peers who often can’t relate to the difficulties and uncertainties of life in a military family.

As part of the Joining Forces campaign, an initiative spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama to support military families, the video unit at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in Southern California filmed a moving series of interviews with the children whose parents are serving overseas.

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