Michelle Obama and Military Families

Last July I sat across the picnic table from my cousin Lang, sipping iced tea and watching the Colorado sun set over the mountains as we talked about what veterans face upon coming home. Lang, 27, served in the Marines from 1999 to 2003 and had two tours of duty in Iraq, as well as a stint protecting the U.S.S. Cole. He is remarkably reflective, a man with soft eyes and a tenacious curiosity about the world. Among other things he said that evening, one sentence has echoed in my head: "The ones who really survive the transition home are those who are able to compartmentalize their lives into before and after."

Lang was one of the survivors. After returning home, he managed to navigate the complex system of Veterans Affairs to get his GI benefits and go to college. When he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles last May with a degree in political science, our entire family was overjoyed.

He seems a beacon of mental and physical health, but I worry about his word choice: "compartmentalization." Psychologists have long argued that a sound mind and spirit are dependent on integration -- the capacity to be whole. Lang doesn't talk about his time in Iraq very readily, nor should he have to. He says one of his biggest pet peeves is when jerks at bars think it's OK to ask, "Dude, did you kill anyone over there?" As if it weren't the most difficult and complex question a veteran could be asked. As if Lang doesn't -- I imagine, though don't know -- think about mortality every day of his life, of national and international responsibility, of his own, very private experiences of the moral conundrum that is war.

The experiences of vets like my cousin Lang are about to gain more prominence. In recent interviews with major media outlets -- from 60 Minutes to Glamour Magazine -- Michelle Obama has been hinting that she may use her access and power come January to improve the state of affairs for military families and veterans. When Steve Kroft of CBS asked how she would "imprint" the job of first lady, Michelle Obama responded, "Well, the thing we've learned, you know, as we've watched this campaign, is that people, women, are capable of doing more than one thing well at the same time. And I've, you know, had to juggle being mom-in-chief and having a career for a long time. The primary focus for the first year will be making sure that the kids make it through the transition. But there are many issues that I care deeply about. I care about military families."

It's nice to hear veterans' affairs resurfacing as a major issue. It seemed like the economic downturn and election hoopla and even the ongoing war itself crowded out veterans' issues from the public consciousness. Even Veterans' Day had a neglected patina this year; it seemed like everyone was still too hyped up about the election results to pay the parades or relevant issues much mind.

As Michelle Obama may sense, we simply don't have the luxury of neglect. Improved gear, advances in medical intervention on the battlefield, and faster evacuations mean that more soldiers are coming home than in previous wars, albeit tragically wounded. The New York Times reports that for every soldier killed in Iraq, there are seven to eight survivors: "But that triumph is also an enduring hardship of the war. Survivors are coming home with grave injuries, often from roadside bombs, that will transform their lives: combinations of damaged brains and spinal cords, vision and hearing loss, disfigured faces, burns, amputations, mangled limbs, and psychological ills like depression and post-traumatic stress."

Two investigative Washington Post reports published in February 2007 about the inadequate conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- especially the rat infested, dangerous building 18 -- led to public outrage and the firing of Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who had been managing the facility for only six months. The Bush administration, however, has appeared unmoved -- repeatedly proposing funding cuts for veterans' care and making it difficult for families to care for their loved ones and stay economically afloat.

The lack of support for veterans of the Iraq War, especially in terms of their mental health, has led to disastrous consequences. By last January, The New York Times had counted 121 cases of veterans who either committed a murder stateside or were charged with one upon returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Three-quarters of them were in the military at the time of the killing. A third of the victims were spouses, girlfriends, children, or other relatives. The Times revisited the issue in yesterday’s edition, citing the Army’s ongoing problem with preventing and prosecuting domestic violence cases in the community.

Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but it also appears that suicide is rampant among former soldiers -- CBS News reports that veterans are twice as likely as those in the civilian population to take their own lives. According to CNN, a quarter of the homeless in this country are veterans, and 2,000 of those have come directly from a stint in Iraq or Afghanistan. USA Today reports that substance abuse is also a rampant problem among soldiers; about 13,500 soldiers sought drug counseling this year, a 25 percent increase over the number five years ago. The Army currently has one drug counselor for every 3,100 soldiers -- pathetic conditions for healing from pernicious addiction.

All of these sad realities remind me of Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s salient words: "The worst barbarity of war is that it forces men collectively to commit acts against which, individually, they would revolt with their whole being." For the men, and indeed the women too, who have gotten caught up in America’s last decade of delusional military drama, the role is often a soul-killing one.

If Michelle Obama can persuade her husband, as well as congressional leaders, to prioritize the funding and revitalization of veterans' medical care, that will be a first, important step in her efforts. But much more demands her attention -- and that of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The Post-September 11 GI Bill Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008 must be passed. It would expand educational opportunities and provide the infrastructure to support soldiers who want to take advantage of them. These opportunities will give returning vets something to invest in while readjusting to civilian life, not to mention a more secure future. My cousin Lang, upon returning from Iraq, enrolled in a local community college, eventually becoming the student-body president of his school and gaining the confidence to transfer to UCLA, where he received a first-rate education.

The Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2008, proposed by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, also must be passed. Women are serving in larger numbers than ever before (190,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan alone), and many are suffering. MSNBC reports that one in seven female soldiers have been sexually assaulted. In the short term, these women need counseling and health services. In the long run, rape and sexual-assault prevention efforts must be ramped up. The entire military culture needs some serious re-evaluation.

The Iraq War, it is largely agreed at this point (even by Bush supporters), was poorly planned and executed. It led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,200 American soldiers. We can't do much about that now, except bring the troops home in a responsible manner and make sure that we leave behind the infrastructure that the Iraqi people need to stave off further civil war and establish a sustainable polity of their own vision and design. Thankfully, Barack Obama has already pledged to remove the troops on a 16-month timetable, starting his first day in office; we'll all have to hold his feet to the fire to see that this happens.

We can also -- and this is, perhaps, where there is the most possibility of redemption -- treat our veterans and their families with the care and concern they deserve. When we talk about ending the war in Iraq, we usually imagine flights full of troops headed home, overjoyed to hug their long-missed loved ones. We often forget about that fifth or 15th night home: the nightmares, the enduring injuries, the necessity of transitional support for both the vets and their families.

We can give veterans a sense that, though the war itself may have been messy, their return to America will be well thought out and characterized by comfort and support. It would be impossible to prevent the pain of transition, to ward off their moral searching, to eradicate their need for time and healing. But it is certainly possible and morally necessary that we devote the most generous resources to ensuring they have what they need for the tough work of re-entry and integration.

It is my hope that Michelle Obama uses her power to pressure her husband and those on his team to see re-entry support as an integral part of the overall plan to end the war in Iraq. Even more, I hope that she follows in the great tradition of so many first ladies by spearheading an infrastructure that will outlive her time in the White House and serve veterans for years to come.

Today, Lang is back living in the tiny mountain town in which he grew up, killing some time and working a local government job to save up money. He aspires to work in veteran advocacy so he can help those who weren't as resilient or capable of compartmentalization. I'm heartened to see that our soon-to-be first lady, Michelle Obama, aspires to see, hear, and help people like my cousin. We should all aspire to support veterans not just in coming home but becoming whole.