Because my 33-year-old father was on the verge of embarking for Europe and the allied invasion of Italy, my birth certificate reads: U.S. Army Hospital, Fort Benning, Ga. When he finally returned, Pfc. Lee Olson's decorations included a Purple Heart medal for shrapnel wounds suffered from a German hand grenade in the Battle of Monte Cassino, one of the longest, bloodiest and most costly land campaigns of World War II.

After my dad died from a sudden heart attack in 1956, I recall my mother wistfully confiding to me, "Your father was never the same person after the war." A stoical Scandinavian, this was her cryptic explanation for my dad's emotional disengagement, frightening impatience, brooding sadness and inability to hold a steady job. Like so many other spouses of returning vets, she mourned for the prewar husband who remained missing in action.

Perhaps she hoped that one day I'd understand why he could never be the loving father he might have been; after decades of trying to fathom and forgive my dad, I finally grasped how the personal had become poignantly political for one unsuspecting 12-year-old boy. In that sense, my mom and I were undocumented collateral damage.

World War II combat veterans rarely, if ever, gave voice to what they'd done or witnessed, and my father was no exception. My best guess is that his emotional scars would be diagnosed today as chronic or delayed post-traumatic stress disorder, which the American Psychiatric Association defines this way: The person has experienced, witnessed or been confronted with an event or events that involve actual or threatened deaths or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others, and his/her response involved fear, helplessness, or horror.

Ellen Goosenberg Kent, a documentary filmmaker and close student of PTSD, correctly observes that if "you think PTSD happens because the war is good or bad or you come home a hero or a villain, it's really irrelevant. What's really relevant is that the experience of war — and experiencing man's inhumanity to man — causes psychological damage." More than half of the U.S. casualties in that Italian campaign were classified as mental wounds.

By the war's end, 16 million Americans had served in the armed forces but no more than 900,000 soldiers experienced extensive combat. For soldiers consistently in combat for 28 days, the breakdown rate reached 90 percent. Importantly, the stigma and shame attached to any personal revelations caused many members of the "greatest generation" not to seek help.

My point in this retelling is that although credible evidence suggests that World War II could have been prevented at earlier points, once it began there was no alternative but to defeat a monstrously evil enemy. As such, the massive psychiatric casualties experienced by our veterans were a heart-rending but unavoidable cost.

Here we get to the nub of the matter. In the 70 years since the necessary war to defeat Hitler's Third Reich and imperial Japan, I'm unable to cite any plausible cases where U.S. armed forces or the CIA have been deployed to defend our nation's ideals, the freedom of ordinary U.S. citizens or any plausible notion of morality. Therefore the massive and growing number of severe psychological maladies plaguing our veterans is yet another unconscionable cost of empire.

In recent years, the Veterans Affairs system has been overwhelmed with PTSD patients from the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even though some 50 percent of those with the symptoms do not seek treatment. This already involves elite U.S. special operations forces, members of which operate in 134 countries. According to the Pentagon, commandos are experiencing alarming rates of alcoholism, spousal abuse and broken marriages, and rates are expected to climb rapidly due to delayed onset of PTSD. In the past 21/2 years, 49 special ops members have killed themselves.

If we accepted responsibility for the effects of combat on the psyches of our veterans and their families, we would resist allowing any more of our sons and daughters to engage in warfare that lacks an iota of the moral clarity ascribed to World War II.

Finally, it's obvious to any objective observer that the top 0.1 percent, a permanent plutocracy of inherited wealth, holds the reins of power in our country. Given that fact, one would hardly expect high-level government officials to come clean to suffering vets about the nefarious economic motives that placed them in harm's way.

And while it's unclear whether truth-telling by the rest of us will help set free the demons hounding the veterans of our recent wars, ending U.S. militarism is the only way to prevent the scourge of soldiers' PTSD from reappearing in the future.

Gary Olson teaches political science at Moravian College. His most recent book is "Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain."