I have visited Arlington National Cemetery, the most hallowed burial ground of our nation's fallen.

I have visited Arlington National Cemetery, the most hallowed burial ground of our nation’s fallen.

A longtime friend served a tour with the Guards of Honor at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington and never failed to mention that it was among the highest honors he received in a 30-year Army career, including a battlefield commission in Korea.

James M. Hanley asked me to deliver a eulogy at his funeral and to remember the Guards of Honor. I did as he asked, recalling his Tidewater Virginia accent and the way so many of our veterans have paid a high price.

Hanley remembered the soldiers, airmen and sailors, frequently reaching into his own pocket as a civilian to help a stranded military member short on cash to reach home or a homeless vet in need of a meal and warm clothing.

Readers who are in the Washington area should take the time to visit Arlington and view the changing of the guard. It is an impressive ceremony and can’t help but stir pride.

Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the guards’ quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the changing of the guard. Hanley said the guards train on their days off.

Arlington, a fully operational national cemetery since May 1864, conducts an average of 27 funerals each workday, including a nation’s farewells to our veterans of World War II, Korea – the latter was a war, not a conflict – Vietnam, the Cold War and in Iraq and Afghanistan. They should get treatment for their wounds, both physical and psychological, and shouldn’t have to wait so ridiculously long for benefits they have earned.

Those benefits are not entitlements, but a contract we had with those who served in uniform. They also deserve educational assistance and job training.

You can’t put a value on their sacrifice, but our debt to veterans does come with a price tag. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already cost nearly $2 trillion and will cost at least an additional $2 trillion – and possibly much more – before it’s all said and done, according to one recent study.

The biggest cost yet to come is long-term medical care and disability benefits for war veterans. Hopefully, we have expanded the quality, quantity and availability of care and benefits for veterans and service members. Many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are relatively young, so spending has grown and will increase further for the next 40 years.

More than 886,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have received medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and more than 783,000 have filed disability claims, the study noted. Those numbers are expected to increase as nearly 1 million who have served in the two wars leave active duty and join the 1.6 million who have been discharged so far.

Another cost is that the military will eventually have to replace much of the equipment used in the wars. Plus, the United States will be financially supporting the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Since the wars were financed with borrowed money, taxpayers will eventually have to repay that debt.

We are reminded that when America goes to war, all of us end up paying, one way or another.

* * *

Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by email at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.