If you’re 18, you’re old enough to wear our country’s uniform and fight in Afghanistan, a war that was conceived before you were even born. This week, as we recognize the 18-year anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, it’s long past time to bring our troops home and acknowledge the toll taken on our service members, their families, and all communities across the country, including the 4.7 million veterans living in rural America.
Brave men and women from rural America have enlisted, fought, and died in greater proportions than those from wealthier cities since 9/11. According to data from the Pentagon, 23% of the 6,800 military casualties from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through 2016 came from small towns and rural areas, despite those areas making up only 17% of the national population. Per capita, almost twice as many Americans from small towns have died at war since 9/11 compared to those from bigger cities.
Putting their patriotic motivations aside, these recruits are also choosing a stable paycheck and potential for career advancement over staying home where they lack sufficient opportunities. It’s no surprise that a poor economy and few economic options are a boon for military recruitment. After the recession in 2008, every branch of the military exceeded their number of recruits for the first time since the military became an all-volunteer force. That’s because the military is a gateway to a higher education, healthcare, promotions, and reliable pay.
Even though it’s 2019, many rural communities still haven’t recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. Deep poverty exists and many people lack sufficient high-paying jobs, as well as access to healthcare, quality educational opportunities, or even the internet. While the government hasn’t been investing in our rural communities, they’ve certainly been investing in the military industrial complex, endless wars, and ceaseless death and destruction around the world.
The price tag of wars since 9/11 alone is about $5.9 trillion dollars. These wars haven’t been paid for; they’re credit card wars. We’ve been borrowing funds, raising the deficit, and increasing the national debt — leaving future generations with an even bigger mess. Instead of the trillions of dollars spent since 9/11, we could have invested in our people and our communities. Just last year alone, we spent $52 billion in Afghanistan, why couldn’t we empower every community with internet instead? The opportunities lost are tremendous. The costs of war are tremendous too.
Our veterans who make it home face a community that is ill-prepared and underfunded to meet their needs. From Storm Lake, Iowa, it’s over a hour-long drive to the closest VA clinic in Carroll. Multiple appointments mean more time spent away from work and family, and more money spent to make the trip. The wait times at these clinics can be egregious. In Mason City, the current average wait time at the local clinic for a primary care appointment is 37 days. Regardless of where veterans live, we have a responsibility to repay our great debt of gratitude for their service by ensuring their health and well-being.
Veterans in rural areas also have higher suicide rates than those in urban areas. Of course, there are a variety of factors that lead to suicide but the fragmented health care system, the lack of mental healthcare, insufficient opportunities and fulfillment at home, and the easy access to guns play a role. We can and must do more to ensure that veterans are successfully reintegrated back into civilian life. A “thank you for your service” is grossly insufficient to ensuring they’re back on their feet.
To honor the service and sacrifice of our veterans, we must ensure our nation’s children are only sent into harm’s way for narrow, achievable goals — not to be the policeman of the world or settle a personal score. As President Trump deploys troops to the Middle East after the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and we tinker on the edge of war with Iran, it’s more important now than ever to understand the true cost of war.
If war is necessary and duly approved by Congress, then our troops should have the full weight and support of our nation’s resources when they return home — no matter where they live. We must acknowledge the full gravity of asking our fellow Americans to put their lives on the line for our freedom, safety, and security, and make real strides in upholding our promises to them by investing in their well-being, their care, and their communities.