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5 facts about the fallen to remember on Memorial Day

Memorial Day — first called Decoration Day — got its start as holiday commemorating fallen soldiers at the end of the Civil War, according to Yale historian David Blight. In 1865, former slaves exhumed Union soldiers from a mass grave in Charleston, South Carolina on the site of that city’s racetrack and buried them in individual graves. It was a ten-day project that ended in a day of celebration of the newly united nation, peace and freedom in which thousands of Charleston’s African-American families gathered to decorate graves, pray, play games and picnic.

Now, almost a century and a half later, there’s no end in sight to U.S.-led military operations across the globe. The loss of life, limb, mind and more from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone has been staggering. “We don’t do body counts,” General Tommy Franks, the retired general who led the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, famously remarked when asked about Iraqi civilian casualties. But we do do body counts of our own fallen. Groups like Veterans for Common Sense and projects like the Washington Post‘s Faces of the Fallen regularly publicize Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs data of U.S. troop casualties while projects like Iraq Body Count helps ensure that civilians killed in U.S.-lead wars get counted.

1. To date, there have been over 112,000 documented U.S. troop casualties in the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of these, 6,461 troops have died; 48,253 have been wounded in action; and more than 58,000 medically evacuated due to injury or disease. according to Defense Department data.

2. The Department of Defense warns that as many as 20 percent of veterans (360,000) from Iraq and Afghanistan may have suffered traumatic brain injury from IED blasts while in combat. Traumatic brain injuries from explosions may not result in skull fractures or loss of consciousness, yet the Institute of Medicine reports that these injuries may be characterized by invisible symptoms like diffuse brain bleeding and result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and problems with mood, attention, concentration, memory, pain, balance, hearing and vision. To date, 741,954 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are patients in the government’s Veterans Administration (VA) system, with more waiting for VA treatment for serious ailments. Some 385,711 are mental health patients, including 223,609 with potential PTSD. Over 10,000 new patients are seen in VA facilities every month. There are few studies of the long-term effects of TBI, but the National Institutes of Health cautions that they could include Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease. There are very few studies of the lifetime effects on soldiers who experience TBI.

3. Every day, five U.S. soldiers attempt suicide, and fully 5 percent of the warzone deaths of U.S. troops are the result of suicide. In addition, 18 U.S. veterans attempt suicide every day, more than four times the national average. Of the 30,000 suicides each year in the U.S., 20 percent are committed by veterans even though veterans make up only 7.6 percent of the population. Male veterans commit suicide at twice the rate of the their civilian counterparts and female veterans at three times the civilian rate.

4. Estimates of civilian deaths from violence in Iraq alone range from a conservative current figure of 116,000 (Iraq Body Count project) to over a million (the 2008 report by Opinion Research Business). The World Heath Organization report in 2008 determined that the casualty figure was double the IBC’s tally, and a 2006 Johns Hopkins report said the total civilian casualties in Iraq numbered 655,000 to date. Certainly, more than 125,000 civilians have been injured in Iraq and 4 million displaced internally. By most estimates, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed or injured since the 2001 invasion, and over 3 million displaced.

5. Despite announcements of troop withdrawals, there is no end to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and beyond. Call it what they will — Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, the War on Terror, or Overseas Contingency Operations — the Department of Defense is prosecuting an ever-widening military conflict in the region through direct, covert, and proxy operations. And, for example, for every aggressor killed by U.S. drones, 10 civilians have also died, Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute estimates.

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Written by | Nora Eisenberg

Nora Eisenberg's articles, interviews, and fiction have appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, the Guardian UK and Alternet, among others. Her novels include The War at Home, a Washington Post Rave Book of the Year 2002; Just the Way You Want Me, the ForeWord Magazine's Fiction Book of the Year 2004; and When You Come Home (Curbstone, 2009), a Grubb Street Fiction Prize finalist. Eisenberg, who holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, is academic director of the Faculty Publications Program at the City University of New York.

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