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Washington Post looks at lives of Iraq, Afghanistan veterans

March 30, 2014 at 5:24 PM EDT
The Washington Post launched a special series Sunday called “A legacy of pain and pride” which looks at the lives of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan through stories and polls in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with one of the authors of the series Greg Jaffe about the poll results and what they reveal about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The Washington Post is launching a special series today called “A legacy of pain and pride,” looking at the lives of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan through stories and polls in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation. Joining us is Greg Jaffe, he covers the military for the Washington Post, is one of the authors of the series and helped design some of the poll questions. So Greg, let me throw up a couple of numbers and have you explain them. On the one hand, when soldiers are asked “Would you say you did anything in the wars that made you feel prouder,” now 87 percent of them said yes. However, when you asked them “Considering the cost versus benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Iraq was worth fighting?” less than half — 43 percent — thought it was worth fighting. Now the numbers are slightly different for the war in Afghanistan, but not much. How do these numbers make sense together.

GREG JAFFE: You know I think it goes to the tremendous prides that soldiers feel — soldiers, marines, the people who served — as being part of this kind of 1 percent that served. you know they saw themselves as this sort of elite group that volunteered, at least that’s one explanation. And that even if the mission ended up not being worth it in their minds and in many cases it didn’t. They still feel pride at what they did. I think there’s also a sentiment in there that “hey, we did our jobs,” but others failed in their jobs. Whether it be the Iraqi or Afghani governments, or the rest of the U.S. government failed in giving them the tools they needed to succeed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s been a great deal of focus and an increased amount of attention spent on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and you had two questions in there that I want to put on screen here: “For each tell me how often, if at all, you personally have experienced the following as a result of your military experience” — outbursts of anger, 41 percent said yes they often or sometimes do, and also relationship problems with your spouse or partners, 45 percent said yes they often or sometimes do. Now these problems can sometimes be signs of PTSD, how do they square with the numbers from the Veterans Administration?

GREG JAFFE: You know they’re much higher than the government, both DOD and VA have sort of found in their surveys, which I think tend to be somewhere between 14 and 20 percent have PTSD. Now, of course, you can have outbursts of anger and relationship problems and not have PTSD, so that explains sometimes why these are higher. But it does go to show that some of the mental legacy of these wars is more than just PTSD. You know, you can have symptoms, you know can be trying to overcome things from combat mentally and emotionally and may not have diagnosable PTSD and I think that’s what these tell us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now you also spent a fair amount of time studying the economics of what happens when these soldiers return home. What did you find?

GREG JAFFE: You know, actually, economically they’re not doing so bad. They’re unemployment rate for what we call post 9/11 vets is higher, but you know they start to look a bit like the rest of America — same levels of debt, credit card debt, things of that nature, same sort of financial struggles as the rest of the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And do they feel like they should be given a special chance if they are up for a job?

GREG JAFFE: Yeah, no that’s interesting. They do feel a sort of sense of entitlement I think is one word for it. Which runs counter to sort of some of the notions of service that we have. I think more than 60 percent feel like they should be given special consideration when applying for jobs. What’s interesting is that on the whole Americans feel, I think 80 percent of them feel that they should be given special consideration. So I think the average American feels an even greater sense of debt to them than they feel sense of entitlement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s also a theme of disconnection that your survey highlights. Two questions that I want to show the audience. Now, when you ask “For each tell me how often, if at all, you personally have experienced the following as a result of your military service” — feeling disconnected from civilian life, 55 percent said often or sometimes, and feeling the average American didn’t understand your experience, that number was really shocking, 69 percent said often or sometimes. What’s behind this? And what are the soldiers telling you in your interviews?

GREG JAFFE: You know I think a lot of this is just, some of its combat, which is I think is fundamentally dislocating. And some if it is just the way we fought these wars. I mean this is the longest stretch of war in American history and it’s really the first long stretch of war that we fought with an all volunteer force. And that you know is just a fundamentally different way of going to war than what we’ve done in the past. And so these guys are coming home and they’re not coming home to large numbers of people in their neighborhoods and in their communities who served with them. I mean they’re coming home from people who’ve largely sort of tuned out the wars and gone on with their lives, particularly in these last few years. And that really I think adds to the normal sort of dislocation and feeling of disconnection that one feels coming home from combat. I think it’s even more acute because these guys are such a small population.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright Greg Jaffe joining us from Washington from the Washington Post. Thanks so much.

GREG JAFFE: Yeah thanks for having me.