The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a broad apology to Vietnam veterans on Wednesday, saying the nation failed them by confusing the unpopular war with the warriors who fought it.
In a speech to the 89th national convention of the American Legion, Rep. Bob Filner also proposed the creation of "de-boot camps" to help soldiers returning from Iraq make the transition to normal life in the face of rising suicide rates and post-battle disorders.
"If we are spending $1 billion every 2.5 days in Iraq, we can spend a few billion on those coming back," he said.
The California Democrat asked how many of the delegates at the convention in Reno were Vietnam vets and the vast majority of the crowd of about 5,000 raised their hands.
"I have to say to all of you, on behalf of this country I guess, we let you down. We didn't give you the honor and respect that you deserved and earned," Filner said.
"Many people in this country confused the war and the warrior. If you did'nt like the war, you said, `To hell with the warrior.' That was a mistake, a tragic mistake, and we owe you an apology," he said to applause.
Filner said half of America's homeless are Vietnam veterans, more than 200,000.
He said 58,000 Vietnam vets have committed suicide, equalling the number who died in the war - "a terrible, terrible statistic."
"That says we did something wrong as a nation. We didn't do the care that was needed. We didn't welcome all the vets back. And I say we have to say more than we are sorry. We have to do a better job. We have to serve our Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans," he said.
Filner said he will push Congress for a pilot program to help the tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.
Like boot camps that prepare soldiers for war, the "de-boot" camps or "Heroes Homecoming camps" could help prepare them for the difficult return to normal life, he said.
The camps could be made a mandatory part of active duty and include a soldier's family as well as other members of their company unit, he said.
"When you leave the combat zone, you can be in Baghdad yesterday and tomorrow you are taking your kids to a soccer game. There is no time for decompression," he said, pointing to high rates of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse as well as the highest suicide rate in the Army in a quarter century.
"We're releasing a time bomb to the community," said Filner, an eight-term congressman who represents a San Diego-area district.
In a speech to the convention earlier Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson urged American Legion members
to provide support to those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and
encourage them to seek help from the VA.
Nicholson said that in past wars, post traumatic stress disorder was called "battle fatigue or shell shock."
"It's important these young heroes who are feeling these symptoms know they are not losing their minds. It is not something permanent," he said.
"They are having a common reaction to a very uncommon experience," he said.
"None of us - spouse, employer, commander - should give any stigma to this. We should encourage them to come into the VA for help."