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June 14, 2011

If hope is crushed, teens are like dry wood ready to burn

Yesterday, on Memorial Day, I thought of my father.

One of my earliest memories as a child is asking my mother about the man in a picture she kept displayed in our home during World War II. “That’s your father,” she replied. “He’s in the military, fighting for freedom against the Nazis, but he’ll be home for a visit soon.”

As I grew older and learned the history of the civil rights movement, I realized that some of the biggest gains that America has made in civil liberties and voting rights are a direct result of the sacrifices by African-American servicemembers who risked their lives to fight for a nation that still viewed them as second-class citizens. They had faith in America’s future, even when our country had failed them for its entire history.

Those who fought and died in the Civil War helped to end slavery, helped to save the Union, and helped our country to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which moved us closer to President Lincoln’s goal of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

And those African-Americans like my father who fought in World War II returned to the U.S. and helped lead the freedom fights in the South. Their sacrifices helped force President Truman to order the desegregation of the armed services.

Now we are engaged in three wars at once: the first, the longest war in our nation’s history; the second, fast closing in on a decade of fighting; and the third, not even officially declared.

It’s time to end these wars and bring our soldiers, sailors and Marines home. Most Americans agree.

And we are moving in that direction, as even a Republican-dominated House of Representatives only narrowly defeated a proposal by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to require the administration to come up with a faster exit strategy for a war in Afghanistan that will soon be a decade long. The measure failed by only 11 votes, with almost all House Democrats voting in support of McGovern’s legislation.

I encourage our president to take advantage of the strategic opening that the death of Osama bin Laden provides and accelerate our exit from these wars.

But even as we honor our servicemembers abroad, we must not forget those who have already come home. Too often, we have loved our servicemembers, and neglected our veterans.

Too many of our veterans are homeless. Too many are unemployed, with few prospects of a decent job. Too many suffer from serious war wounds, both physical and mental, and lack access to quality health care.

Some bankers have even been found guilty of foreclosing on the homes of active duty members of the military. Can you imagine the greed that requires?

And let us also not forget that those immigrants who joined up to fight for this country have earned their citizenship.

Our veterans deserve our best. Our veterans volunteered to put their lives on the line for the rest of us. They deserve a guaranteed job, a fair wage, decent housing, good health care, and help going back to school. They have earned it.

I remember during the first Gulf War, when George H.W. Bush was president, how Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” became sort of an anthem for our troops. Millions of Americans wore yellow ribbons, sent gift packages tied up with yellow ribbons, or tied yellow ribbons around the trees in their front yards.

In that same spirit, now we need to “tie a yellow ribbon” around jobs for veterans, fair wages for veterans, decent housing for veterans, serious physical and mental health care for veterans, and more education for veterans.

It will cost money. But we are the richest nation on earth, and we are at least pretending to have the money to fight three wars at once. We certainly have the money to take care of those who volunteered to take care of us.

If we loved our warriors during the wars, we must remember to love our veterans when peace comes — which I hope will be soon.