In October 2006, shortly after stepping off a C-30 troop transport plane and nearly 20 hours after departing Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, I landed in Iraq to fulfill a long-planned visit with our troops. If I had any doubts that I was now in a war zone, they were quickly dispelled when I was ordered to put on an armored vest and helmet.
It was about eight in the evening when I arrived at Iraq’s Al Asad Airbase. I was immediately faced with a choice by my military hosts, which included Brigadier General Robert Neller and then assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Magnus: I could go to my assigned quarters and freshen up, or I could join them now as they headed to the base field hospital. A report had just come in that two Marines had just been dispatched to the ER, their condition uncertain, the victims of a suicide-bomber attack that had demolished their tank.
“Let’s go,” I said.
I was bleary-eyed tired, but this was what I was here for – to support our soldiers. I was recharged by this sense of purpose. Soon, I was even more alert due to the sight of roadblocks and barricades, sentries standing watch and an occasional service member walking along in shorts and T-shirt, M16 slung over the shoulder, as we sped past. We soon arrived at the connecting bungalows, making up the field hospital, and entered through a brightly lit emergency room with about a dozen tables. Assembled in the ER to greet us was a full staff of doctors and nurses in camouflage fatigues, directing us to the treatment area.
I was taken back a bit when I turned a corner and found myself face-to-face with the two injured Marines. They were gingerly shuffling down the hallway, about to return to their hospital room. One was a tall skinny kid in his early 20s with a topknot of dark hair, his face flecked with shrapnel marks. He was holding an IV bag in the air for his buddy as they struggled along. The other Marine appeared more seriously injured. He was shorter, with blond hair and the build of a linebacker. Both of his arms were heavily bandaged up to his shoulders and frozen in position in front of him.
I said, “Hi guys, I’m Chuck Norris. How are you doing?”
The fellow with the bandaged arms managed a smile and said something to the effect of “Chuck Norris? If you would have been here yesterday, the war would be over today and I wouldn’t have gotten blown up.”
We both laughed. I cautiously gave the men a hug. Back in their room and hospital beds, the Marines told me that the suicide attack had occurred when a man in a pickup truck pulled in front of their tank. The Marines had seen the guy press his thumb to the detonator.
In this new and escalating world of war, with bigger and more lethal bombs and improvised explosive devices as the weapons of choice, more than 200,000 troops have now tested positive for concussions or other forms of traumatic brain injuries from exposure to such detonations. Yet, little is known about what happens to the brain as a result of such powerful bomb blasts. As noted in Lizette Alvarez’s 2008 report in the New York Times, the ramifications often go unseen by the military because symptoms often worsen once veterans leave the structure of the military for the unpredictability of civilian life.
During that trip, I was able to visit with more than 18,000 service men and women. I visited both large installations and the smallest forward operating bases – a condition I insisted upon. I returned in 2007 and was able to take pictures with, and shake hands with, more than 20,000 troops.
As I reflect on this year’s observance of Veterans Day, I am drawn to thoughts of these extraordinary soldiers, many of whom comprise the nearly two million veterans in this country today that are younger than 35. This also marks the first Veterans Day in a decade in which there are no American troops fighting and dying in Iraq. With the drawdown of the war in Afghanistan, it is estimated that more than a million service members will make the transition to civilian life over the next few years.
Like many young men in America of my generation, military experience played an important part in instilling in me a sense of character and discipline that has served me throughout my life. In 2007, I was made an honorary member of the United States Marine Corps by General Conway, Commandant of the Marines, in recognition of my support of our troops. During my career, I have always tried to acknowledge the debt I owe to this experience, as well as encourage others to discover the values to be found in service to your country. The debt we owe to members of today’s military, especially the brave men and women who serve in harm’s way, cannot be easily repaid. When they are discharged from service, their mission is completed but ours must begin.
We must make sure that they have the absolute best medical and mental health services available to aid them in their transition home. There can be no cost cutting here. It cannot be subordinate to investments in more ships and planes. For the cost of sending this nation’s human treasure off to war can not only be measured in lives and limbs lost but also the mental health toll on returning warriors and their families. We must be there for them as never before – as a government, families, friends, neighbors and communities. We must make their struggle a shared struggle. We must be the extended hand that helps, the ear that listens and the compassionate heart that stands with them.
Welcoming them back is important. Healing them is a greater responsibility that we all must ensure.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.