Veterans deserve the best possible care our nation can offer. There are serious problems facing this community of heroes — from post-traumatic stress to a broken VA system — that demand urgent national attention.
At the same time, veterans are often portrayed as victims by some politicians and journalists. The war heroes I've met and interviewed are anything but. On the contrary, they are leaders, and represent our country's best and brightest hopes.
In May 2012, I met U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of the few Americans to ever survive losing all four limbs in combat, at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Then 25, Staff Sgt. Mills was upbeat, optimistic and humble. He refused to call himself a hero, and said repeatedly that he would serve in Afghanistan all over again if given the chance.
"He wouldn't have let this happen to any of his guys, and that's why it didn't happen to any of his guys," Staff Sgt. Mills' wife, Kelsey, said during a phone interview before our meeting. "He was always the first in line anywhere they went."
Something else the wounded warrior's wife told me stood out.
"I wouldn't have known any of these stories if I wasn't here walking through the hospital," she said in May 2012. "I never would have met these families or known what they're going through."
With just one percent of our population serving in uniform, most Americans, including me, cannot possibly understand the sacrifices of our troops and veterans without making an effort to meet them and hear their stories. Doing so is essential to helping our nation's heroes overcome the various crises facing their overall community.
In October 2012, I met U.S. Army 1st Lt. Nick Vogt at Walter Reed. Then 24, 1st Lt. Vogt had lost his legs in Afghanistan less than a year earlier. He had since endured countless surgeries, including one during which he nearly died.
"I'm doing great," the smiling wounded warrior told me.
Despite injuries that could ruin almost anyone's life, Nick was content to stay the course in his.
"I'm staying in," Nick said at the time about his military career.
When challenges arise in my own life, I often think of Nick's smile, which was undoubtedly a product of his mother, Sheila, who I also met that day at Walter Reed. Despite encountering some of life's greatest challenges, Nick and his family kept smiling and inspiring others. Now out of the hospital, the sky is the limit for how high this wounded warrior can climb.
U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Timothy Fallon came home from the battlefield with a different type of injury: His eyesight was severely limited after an explosion that killed one of his Afghan counterparts. Despite being forced to adjust to a painful new reality at a young age, 1st Lt. Fallon was undeterred.
"I'm not too worried about my future," Tim told me in January 2012. "The world didn't end; I'm only 24, and I have a long ways, hopefully, ahead of me."
These three stories all involve wounded warriors who are overcoming long odds and unimaginable circumstances to become productive examples for everyone else in our society. Of course, there are other veterans — some with wounds we can't see — who go down a path toward depression, homelessness and suicide. Their stories are also very important.
Having been blessed with the privilege of meeting and speaking with so many real-life American heroes, I believe that they are leaders who can lead not only their community of veterans, but also our nation as a whole. Should Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, 1st Lt. Nick Vogt or 1st Lt. Timothy Fallon ever run for public office, I will be first in line to cast my vote, no matter which political party they represent.
As the 13th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it is time to start truly saluting the brave men and women who have shielded our nation from another large-scale terrorist attack. Look upon them not as charity cases, but as America's guiding lights.
Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice." Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, "BROTHERS FOREVER" will be released in spring 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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