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James Ferragut, Published May 15 2011

Ferragut: Again, we focus on wars

The death of Osama bin Laden has re-focused our attention on the wars in the Middle East. There are the appropriate feelings of pride in the perseverance of our intelligence gathering and the precision of the military assault by the Navy SEAL Six. There are kudos to President Barack Obama for making what one senior intelligence spokesperson said “… was the gutsiest call in military history in the last 100 years.”

I’ve been thinking about active military personnel and veterans for months. It started with reading “The Good Soldiers” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Finkel, who spent eight months embedded in Baghdad in a battalion known as the 2-16 (Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division). The 2-16 was part of President George W. Bush’s “surge” into Baghdad in January 2007.

The story of the 2-16 is an intimate, tension-filled, sobering experience of every patrol, IED launch, maiming and death during the author’s eight-month stay. “The Good Soldiers” is being called the definitive account of the war. It’s graphic, random, tedious, heart-breaking and tragic.

The World War II story of Louis Zamperini’s survival in the Pacific Theater is told in the book “Unbroken.” As I was preparing the celebration of my father’s 90th birthday, I discovered photographs that I thought had been lost. My dad was an Instrument Flight Instructor in Iwo Jima. He was in the Army Air Force for five years, based in Georgia, Hawaii and Iwo. The pictures could easily have been in Zamperini’s book.

My dad never talked much about the war. But when we pressed, his stories were riveting, engaging and human. Like so many veterans, he has avoided any attention on himself, refusing to go on Honor Flights to D.C. or even contributing memorabilia to the Fargo Air Museum, as if his five-year contribution to the war isn’t worthy of recognition. He couldn’t be more wrong.

The Navy SEAL Six did an incredible job. They were after the highest-value target on the planet. But the intensity, the threat of danger, the terror and uncertainty of their mission were equal in every way to the daily patrols of Baghdad’s 2-16, Restrepo’s 2nd Platoon, Zamperini’s B-29 missions, my dad’s hell in Iwo Jima, Korea’s cold war or my buddy Bruce’s two tours in the Special Forces during Vietnam.

The take-away is that our veterans’ mental, physical and financial health should never, ever be compromised. The sacrifices they made, the hell they saw and still dream about, the freedom we enjoy, came at their expense. There should never be a question about delivering every resource we have to ensure that their post-service lives allow them to live with the financial, medical and mental security they deserve. It’s a debt that we’ll never be able to fully repay, but it’s the very least we can do.

Ferragut, a marketing consultant, is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.