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A Tough Homecoming for War Veterans

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Every so often, we'll reprint something from our sister publication, The Week. This is one of those times.

© Zhang Jun/Xinhua Press/Corbis

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home with unprecedented physical and mental wounds. Here, a Q&A guide.

What challenges do new veterans face?

More than 2.3 million soldiers have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, and official fatality and casualty numbers — 6,179 dead, 47,000 wounded — fail to capture the extensive physical and psychological injuries many of them have suffered.

The Veterans Administration has treated more than 210,000 veterans of those wars for post-traumatic stress disorder, but acknowledges a much larger epidemic, since the stigma of mental-health problems prevents many of them from seeking help. Vets are also returning to marriages and families strained or broken by multiple deployments, few employment opportunities, and a country largely oblivious to the wars in which they served, heightening their feelings of loneliness and alienation. "It's harder coming home than leaving — anyone will tell you that," says Col. Michael Gaal, who served in Iraq.

What kinds of wounds have they suffered?

Wounded soldiers are far more likely to come home alive today than in past wars, thanks to advances in combat medicine, faster evacuations, and better body armor. In Vietnam, 2.6 soldiers survived their wounds for every battlefield death; in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio is 16 to 1. But that means thousands are returning with catastrophic injuries, such as double and triple amputations and debilitating spinal cord damage, and they need special, long-term care. The use of improvised explosive devices by insurgents has caused a huge increase in traumatic brain injuries, widely considered the "signature injury" of these wars, with at least 218,000 cases diagnosed over the past decade.

What are traumatic brain injuries?

They range from penetrating head wounds to concussions sustained through exposure to massive bomb blasts. Diagnosis can be difficult; blast waves can cause micro-concussions that damage brain cells even of soldiers who are not counted among the wounded. "There are combat wounds you can see, and others that are invisible until symptoms develop," says clinical psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen. Even mild brain injuries can lead to a range of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems, including difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and depression. Symptoms often overlap with those of PTSD, making it hard to determine whether soldiers are suffering a psychological problem, a brain injury, or both.

Are these problems widespread?

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America estimates that nearly one in three recent vets — or more than 700,000 of them — suffers from PTSD, depression, or brain injury. Blackouts, flashbacks, night terrors, and sudden rages are common among veterans; suicide, alcoholism, and drug use have surged. PTSD has been cited as a factor in many acts of vets running amok, such as this month's killing of a Mount Rainier National Park ranger by a 24-year-old Iraq returnee. Since PTSD symptoms can emerge long after service ends, fallout from the disorder is likely to increase. "When you look at the epidemic of PTSD, you see the future," says Harvard professor Linda Bilmes.

Are vets getting the help they need?

Many are not. "No one was really prepared for the number of seriously wounded survivors," says Dr. Ronald Glasser, the author of a book on battlefield medicine. Wounded veterans have swamped the VA system, leading to a backlog of almost 900,000 disability claims. Vets complain of a burdensome bureaucracy, lost paperwork, redundant medical exams, and inconsistent diagnoses. "You fight for your country, then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised," said Clay Hunt, a Marine sniper who was shot in the wrist in Iraq, and had to wait 10 months for disability checks. Depressed, divorced, and haunted by the loss of several close friends in battle, Hunt killed himself last March.

What will their long-term care cost?

Hundreds of billions of dollars. Studies show that the cost of health-care and disability payments for veterans of past wars did not peak until decades after the last bullet was fired. The peak year for paying out disability claims to World War I veterans was 1969, and care costs for Vietnam vets have not yet crested. Because of the high survival rates and the many cases of PTSD and brain injuries, it's been estimated that the medical and disability costs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the next 40 years could reach $930 billion.

Are returning vets getting jobs?

Many find that their old jobs have disappeared, or that potential employers are skeptical about the value of their military service. Unemployment among recent vets is 13.1 percent, compared with the national level of 8.5 percent. One in three vets between the ages of 18 and 24 — many of whom had scant education or work experience when they deployed — is now jobless, twice the rate for non-vets of the same age range. "The spike in new veteran unemployment should be a serious wake-up call for the country," says Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The tide of war might be receding, but the surge home is just really beginning."

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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Watch a Panda Caretaker Cuddle With Baby Pandas While Dressed Up Like a Panda
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Some people wear suits to work—but at one Chinese nature reserve, a handful of lucky employees get to wear panda suits.

As Travel + Leisure reports, the People's Daily released a video in July of animal caretakers cuddling with baby pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province. The keepers dress in fuzzy black-and-white costumes—a sartorial choice that's equal parts adorable and imperative to the pandas' future success in the wild.

Researchers raise the pandas in captivity with the goal of eventually releasing them into their natural habitat. But according to The Atlantic, human attachment can hamper the pandas' survival chances, plus it can be stressful for the bears to interact with people. To keep the animals calm while acclimating them to forest life, the caretakers disguise their humanness with costumes, and even mask their smell by smearing the suits with panda urine and feces. Meanwhile, other keepers sometimes conceal themselves by dressing up as trees.

Below, you can watch the camouflaged panda caretakers as they cuddle baby pandas:

[h/t Travel + Leisure]


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