President Barack Obama announced in November that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan to beat back the Taliban resurgence. The weight of that decision was somewhat lost until last Sunday, when about 50 camouflaged members of the Montana National Guard said goodbye to their families at the Missoula International Airport before boarding a plane to begin a 400-day tour of duty in Afghanistan.
This year will be a busy one for Montana National Guardsmen and women. Brig. Gen. John Walsh said last week he expects more than 1,100 soldiers to deploy by fall, or about one-third of the state's entire force. It's the most deployed since the early days of the Iraq War, when nearly 1,700 Montana troops were called to service.
Montanans' willingness to sacrifice for their country has always been impressive. We volunteer at rates higher than any other state in the country. We have the second-highest number of veterans per capita—more than 100,000. But the service comes at a price. We also rank second in the number of deaths per capita. At least 40 Montanans have died and 250 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, too often this service goes unrecognized in Missoula. We've heard from local veterans that when they return home after tours abroad they barely receive a thank you, much less a proper homecoming. Chase Weston, an Iraq War veteran featured in an Independent story on post-traumatic stress disorder last fall, told us that Missoulians' opposition to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan manifests as passive animosity, if not blatant disrespect, toward the soldiers who fight there.
"It's about the thank yous," Weston said. "They don't understand how far that goes. Because so many people are saying, 'Fuck the war,' and the veterans are hearing, 'Fuck the vets.'... Veterans are stuck in our own world. We really are. If you're knocking the war, we're going to take it personally, because we were there."
Weston's words resonate. Why do we line the streets in support of our football team as they take off to battle for a national championship, but don't do the same for our neighbors about to battle for their lives? Imagine how much more difficult it is for physically and emotionally scarred soldiers like Weston to reintegrate into a community that doesn't appreciate their sacrifice.
Weston suggests one way to thank soldiers would be to stop protesting the war. We can't agree with that, but we understand his point. That's why when those Montanans return in 400 days—and hopefully every single one of them returns—we'll set politics aside and simply say, "Thank you."