In aftermath of Afghanistan Papers, veterans need our support now more than ever
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Earlier this month, Americans across the nation awoke to a shocking new investigative piece at the Washington Post uncovering failures and deceptions at the highest levels of government related to the war in Afghanistan. The piece, which reported on missteps spanning the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, reminded many of the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers, a similar scandal that rocked the nation.

If this feels like history repeating itself, that is because there are many similarities between the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers stories. But we must be careful not to let history repeat itself in its entirety. Specifically, we cannot allow the same mistreatment faced by veterans of the Vietnam War to affect the post-9/11 generation of veterans.

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is the longest conflict in American history, followed by the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1964-1973. The brave men and women who served during that war had to confront the challenges of being publicly identified with America’s unpopular campaign in the country and were not given the honor and respect that their service deserved.

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Veterans returning from Vietnam, who should have been greeted with respect for their service, were often confronted with hostility instead. Veterans were insulted, spat upon, had memorial services canceled, and in some cases ordered not to wear uniforms outside their bases on American soil to avoid attracting public wrath associated with the unpopular politics of the war. Worse yet, the government’s indifference to the problems facing the veteran community, be it health, education, employment, or other issues exacerbated the trauma they experienced while fighting for their country.

Veterans of that war, just like the veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan, did what was asked of them and served their country. Both deserve our honor and respect and should be kept out of the political blame game. This is why, as CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), I am actively encouraging Americans to learn from the mistakes made in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and remember the sacrifices that this generation of veterans has made on all of our behalves.

Most importantly, this means ensuring the blame game doesn’t result in government inaction to support our veterans. The nation’s veterans are facing hardships that must be addressed by our policymakers in both health care and economic opportunity. For example, we’re losing 21 veterans a day to suicide, meaning more veterans need access to high quality mental and physical health care - not to mention wraparound services that would keep them from getting to the point of crisis in the first place. Additionally, there are more women veterans than ever before, as well as veterans exposed to burn pits, all of whom require specific services from the VA. Congressional bills such as the Deborah Sampson Act and the Burn Pits Accountability Act, IAVA-led legislation, begin to address these and other needs.

Providing the care our veterans earned is one of the best possible ways to show this generation the respect and honor they deserve. Another is ensuring our veterans returning from these conflicts have access to high quality education and are able to properly transition from military to civilian work. This can be made possible by protecting the GI Bill, which provides them with financial assistance for post-secondary education.

Finally, we must also make sure veterans aren’t used as political props in culture and news media. Many Vietnam-era veterans were subject to wildly offensive portrayals. Though the stereotypes are different, the same is happening now to the post-9/11 generation of veterans and it needs to stop - this is why we work with the entertainment industry and news media to protect our service men and women from harmful stereotypes. This kind of work is especially important in the midst of a shocking report like the “Afghanistan Papers.”

While people can take away from these new reports what they will, IAVA calls upon Americans to rally behind veterans. The news this week should remind us all of our responsibility to the entire post-9/11 generation of veterans and the importance to do better by them than we did for the veterans of the Vietnam War. While IAVA continues to stand up for proper health care, economic opportunity and public perception of our veterans, everyday Americans can simply endeavor to separate their political concerns about the Afghanistan conflict from the honorable service of American veterans who responded to the call of duty.

Jeremy Butler is the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.