Soldier Complains War and Veterans' Issues Ignored in US Election Campaign

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Three American soldiers were killed today in eastern Afghanistan. A man on a motor bike drove himself and his bomb into a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol in the market area of the city of Khost. Many Afghan soldiers and civilians were killed in the explosion as well. U.S. forces only resumed joint patrols last week. Those patrols had been suspended for a time because, you may recall, of the number of Afghan troops turning their guns on their allies. It's a tough story and a tough issue. But some veterans and current members of the military are concerned that in this election year, the war in Afghanistan and other defense issues are being ignored. Sgt. Jonathan Raab touches on that in his recent post for The New York Times At War blog. Raab is currently deployed in Kuwait with the New York National Guard. He's also a spokesman for the vets group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Sgt. Raab, you write about this horrible silence when it comes to the war. What do you mean? Explain that.

Jonathan Raab: When I wrote that I meant it to refer to a couple different levels. One is the personal. Pretty much throughout history whenever soldiers or warriors have gone away from their civilization or nation they've always felt a sense of distance, and rightfully so. When they return a lot of times, especially in this most recent war, obviously, they have a hard time reconnecting with families and friends, or even society in general. That's the first level. And the second level is something that I've noticed a lot more on this, my second deployment, especially during this presidential election, is that it seems that because the war has been going on so long and all these conflicts around the world that the U.S. military is engaged in, a lot of people seem to have tuned it out and it doesn't seem to be a primary issue, especially in regards to the presidential election.

Werman: Kind of a war fatigue?

Raab: Yeah, definitely, I think that's going on a lot. I mean, you mentioned the headlines, they're horrific, they're awful, and a lot of times they refer to people that we may even know, family members or friends, or friends of friends. But people tune it out, you know, it's become just another stopping point between the sports and the weather and that's not acceptable.

Werman: We should mention that you've served previous deployments in Afghanistan, and I'm wondering, when you do come back to the states, when you are on leave, do you feel that people want to know about what you are doing?

Raab: I think it depends on the individual. I was only in Afghanistan once and I came back and actually transitioned out of the military for about a year. Most of my family and friends definitely wanted to reconnect and definitely wanted to talk with me about it, but there was definitely that reticence, that fear that they didn't want to offend me or bring up something that was uncomfortable.

Werman: Well, you're in Kuwait as we pointed out, I'm just wondering, there's obviously no problem staying abreast of the news and seeing what's online.

Raab: Right.

Werman: But what's your take on the coverage of the news headlines that affect you as a soldier? What about what the candidates are saying about what you're doing right now?

Raab: Well, one of the reasons I wrote the article is because I don't really see either candidate really addressing what's going on in Afghanistan or our military policy except in kind of like big, broad strokes and I think that's a mistake. And I think a presidential election presents no better opportunity than to have that discussion. What exactly is our military accomplishing or aren't we accomplishing? What are our goals? What is the end state? It seems like we've been at war for a decade on and we don't really have coherent policy necessarily, we don't have a robust discussion, we don't have a lot of people at home really tuned in and concerned about what it is we're trying to accomplish.

Werman: Right, well, as you say, that war in Afghanistan has been going on for over ten years. Why do you think that discussion isn't happening?

Raab: You mentioned war fatigue, and I think a lot of people, the majority of Americans definitely do support the military, and I think sometimes in that support they're not always willing to question necessarily what's going on. And I'm not saying necessarily that what's happening is negative, I'm not saying it's positive, I'm just saying that I'm not really hearing those hard questions being asked period.

Werman: Right, but the president and his Republican rival better not have war fatigue. I mean they're, one of them's going to have to deal with it. Why aren't they talking about it?

Raab: Absolutely, and that's a good question and that's something I want to bring up to people. I wish that was addressed more in the mainstream media, I wish that was addressed more outside of places than just The New York Times At War blog. Whenever the war is mentioned it's usually presented in the context of how does the discussion of this policy or this war affect the presidential candidates' chances at re-election, rather than saying okay, what's best for the nation.

Werman: Now in your blog at The New York Times At War site, you point out that maybe the conclusion is people and politicians need to talk about these things, but don't be freaked out if I laugh when you talk about them. So explain that.

Raab: Laughter a lot times can be a form of catharsis, right, so whenever you're relieved, you watch a scary movie and something pops out and says boo, the first thing you do after you jump is laugh, you share a laugh with friends. It's a way to blow off steam, it's a way to be relaxed, to remind yourself that it's okay, that you're still here. So if I come home and someone starts discussing something difficult, I might laugh just because I'm so relieved to hear that someone else is worried about these issues too.

Werman: Now aside from the war, Sgt. Raab, what are the big issues for you that need addressing?

Raab: I think the number one thing right now, military-wide, especially in the Army, has got to be suicide. Since the beginning of this year, we've had about 80 potential reserve component suicides and about 131 potential active duty Army suicides, and that's just in the Army, and that's just this year alone. Those numbers are probably going to increase going forward. Myself, I just taught a class on suicide prevention on the Army stand-down day, the day my article was published. That's definitely the number one issue facing veterans and the military community. And number two, beyond that, I would say is definitely unemployment. You know, the veteran employment numbers are typically lower that the average population. Those are problems we definitely need to address.

Werman: Even those numbers you gave us, though, I mean, that's practically one suicide per day since the beginning of the year. That's shocking.

Raab: Right, it's terrible. I mean, often it outpaces the casualty numbers from Afghanistan. That's a huge problem.

Werman: Sgt. Jonathan Raab, an author and blogger. He was speaking with us from Kuwait where he is currently deployed with the New York National Guard. Sgt. Raab, thank you for your time.

Raab: Thank you for having me.