The war in Iraq is in its seventh year. The war in Afghanistan, in its ninth year, is the longest war in our history. According to Yale historian David Blight, Memorial Day (first called Decoration Day), the U.S. holiday commemorating fallen soldiers, got its start at the end of the Civil War. In 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina former African-American slaves exhumed Union soldiers from a mass grave on the site of Charleston's exclusive racetrack and buried them in individual graves, a ten-day project that ended in a day of celebration of the nation, peace, and freedom in which thousands of Charleston's black families gathered to decorate graves, pray, play games, and picnic. 135 years after the end of our Civil War, our nation is engaged in near civil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which we had a part in starting and no plans for ending.
"We don't do body counts,"General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, famously remarked, when asked about Iraqi civilian casualties. We do do body counts of our own -- though we don't talk about them much. Thanks to groups like Veterans for Common Sense, Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs data have been publicized, and thanks to projects like Iraq Body Count, we do count them.
As we picnic and play this Memorial Day, let's try to remember that:
1. To date, there have been 90,955 documented U.S. troop casualties in the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of these, 4,378 troops have died; 37,280 have been wounded in action; and 48,272 have been medically evacuated due to injury or disease.
2. The Department of Defense last year warned that as many as 20 percent of veterans (360,000) may have suffered traumatic brain injury from IED blasts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blast injuries generally do not result in skull fractures or loss of consciousness yet the Institute of Medicine has reported that these traumatic brain injuries may cause diffuse brain bleeding and result in PTSD and problems with mood, attention, concentration, memory, pain, balance, hearing and vision.
3. 508,152 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are patients in the VA system. Thousands more are waiting as much as a year for VA treatment for serious ailments including traumatic brain injury. 243,685 (48 percent) are mental health patients and 143,530 (28 percent) are being treated for PTSD. A recent University of Michigan study demonstrated that PTSD sufferers have more physical illness in later life as their immune systems take back seats to systems needed for crises.
4. Every day, five U.S. soldiers attempt suicide, a 500 percent increase since 2001.
5. Every day 18 U.S. veterans attempt suicide, more than four times the national average. Of the 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S., 20 percent are committed by veterans, though veterans make up only 7.6 percent of the population.
6. Female veteran suicide is rising at a rate higher than male veteran suicides.
7. In 2009, there were 3,230 reports of sexual assault including rape, according to the DoD, with many more that number thought to be unreported. In a 2003 survey of female veterans 30 percent reported being raped in the military. A 2004 study of veterans with PTSD reported that 71 percent of women seeking treatment said they were sexually assaulted or raped while serving in the military.
8. The number of U.S. service men and women killed in Afghanistan has doubled in the first quarter of 2010. compared to the same quarter last year. In the first two months of 2010, injuries tripled, with U.S. casualties expected to rise still more with the troop surge in Afghanistan.
9. 2,052,405 service men and women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Over 40 percent of them have been deployed two or more times. Some will have been deployed as many as five years Currently 94,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan and 92,000 in Iraq.
And last but not least:
10. Estimates of civilian deaths from violence in Iraq alone range from a conservative 105,000 (Iraq Body Count project) to over 1.2 million (UK pollster Opinion Research Business), with estimates by Johns Hopkins at 655,000. More than 125,000 civilians have been injured in Iraq and 4 million displaced, with civilian death and injury in 2010 rising each month. By most estimates, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the 2001 invasion, over 200,00 have been internally displaced, and over 2 million have become refugees, with civilian deaths and injuries rising dramatically in 2010.
The war in Iraq is in its seventh year. The war in Afghanistan, in its ninth year, is the longest war in our history. On Memorial Day, as we remember the dead and wounded, ours and theirs, the latest installment of 30,000 new troops is readying for new battles with Taliban fighters in Kandahar.
When will they ever learn, oh, when will they ever learn?
Nora Eisenberg is the director of the City University of New York's fellowship program for emerging scholars. Her short stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such places as The Partisan Review, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times and Tikkun. She is the author of three highly acclaimed novels. Her most recent novel, When You Come Home (Curbstone, 2009), explores the the 1991 Gulf War and Gulf War illness.