Ruth Ann Dailey: A nation's shame: deserting veterans in need

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The only time I've ever rooted for a deserter was while reading Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain." It's hard to imagine that any modern American would not want the wounded Inman to survive his North Carolina odyssey and make it back to his mountain home and bride-to-be.

But he was a quasi-fictional character on the lam from the Confederate Army. The arm's length of fiction and the moral clarity of the Civil War allow us to wish nothing but happiness for someone who walks away from a cause he doesn't believe in.

Real life and modern wars don't often provide such clarity. Even World War II, the "Good War," whose D-Day heroes we've just celebrated, had its deserters.

If it's a scandal for a soldier to leave his post, to abandon his mates and his country's cause, it is surely a greater scandal when we turn away from our soldiers.

A soldier's desertion may arise from failure of nerve or disagreement with the war, either of which would soften our criticism to some degree.

But our abandonment of America's veterans springs from ingratitude. Nothing can mitigate that: How horrible to ask men and women to risk everything for us, then treat them with oblivion or disdain.

Aren't we the real deserters here?

The stark contrast between their sacrifice and our collective disregard was hard to miss as the weeklong celebration of the Allies' invasion of Normandy unfolded against the backdrop of the appalling Veterans Administration scandal.

We saw the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, or the relative handful who remain with us, 70 years later. They were serenaded and honored, feted and interviewed, and rightly so.

And in the same newspapers, websites and broadcasts, we learned of veterans from Columbia, S.C., to Phoenix, whose medical care was delayed and denied -- reportedly to the point of causing deaths.

VA staffers falsified records to make it seem vets were getting appointments and treatment when in fact they were not. Bureaucratic goals dictated bitter physical realities.

Honoring our vets from WWII -- and from Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq -- is appropriate and necessary. Failing to meet their physical needs is unforgivable.

That clarity was muddled by the bipartisan pushback last week to President Barack Obama's deal for alleged deserter Bowe Bergdahl.

The Army sergeant, now 28 years old, apparently walked away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and spent five years in Taliban captivity, sometimes in abusive confinement.

To return him to our shores, Mr. Obama traded five Taliban operatives held at Guantanamo Bay. He did so without notifying Congress, as the law requires. He freely admitted these former detainees may well rejoin the terrorists' global war against the West.

Whatever Sgt. Bergdahl's true story and however rebuke-worthy the president's actions, it would be a shame -- no, it would be to our great shame -- if we allow the Bergdahl fiasco to distract us from addressing our own massive failure.

Perhaps that's why politicians and citizens of both parties jumped on the Bergdahl thing. It lets us off the hook.

We don't deserve to be let off the hook.

My late grandfather-in-law was in the second wave of gliders on D-Day. He never spoke of the experience. He said the scars scattered over his body were bee stings, to which he was allergic. That was all he had to say. Ever.

With or without popular support, war is hell, right? Vietnam vets will tell you that lack of support prolongs the hell. Sadly, vets of many wars can now tell you this nation's indifference and incompetence also prolong their hell.

Our military men and women are coming home with severe injuries -- whether mental or physical -- and our debt of gratitude demands that we attend to their needs.

Ironically, the circumstances of Bergdahl's return guarantee him better care than many seemingly more honorable vets ever get.

Instead, civil servants have falsified records to make it appear they were taking care of our vets when in fact they were not. Those civil servants are so protected that it's very difficult to fire them, even for gross incompetence and dishonesty.

Soldiers understand as few of us do that actions have consequences. On the battlefield those actions mean life or death. It's time for our representatives -- VA staffers, doctors and managers -- to face the consequences of their actions.

If we don't hold them accountable, then we are as guilty as they are. Guilty not just of incompetence and neglect, but of ingratitude for our veterans' service.

All the feel-good celebrations or righteous indignation in the world can't cover that up.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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