Dec. 5, 2012— -- War and the U.S. military were staples in Tom Hanks' life long before he starred in "Saving Private Ryan" 14 years ago.
The actor grew up in Alameda, Calif., where the Naval Air Station is located. Almost all of his friends had fathers serving overseas in the Air Force so military, he said, was a fabric of life.
But while Hanks says the military was normal and understandable in his childhood, the Vietnam War was not.
"I was totally confused. Absolutely, 100 percent confused," Hanks told correspondent Bob Woodruff for the ABC News "Standing Up for Heroes" series. "Vietnam grew sort of like mushrooms in a cellar. It was just there. And it lingered and lingered and lingered for a very long time."
There was a meaning behind World War II that Vietnam didn't have, Hanks, 56, says.
"We knew about Nazis and Pearl Harbor and whatnot," he said. "To the 10-year-old, 11-year-old, 12-year-old mind, I was always waiting to have that moment [in Vietnam] explained to me and the best they could come up with was Lynden Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which isn't exactly the same as Normandy or Pearl Harbor."
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a little more understandable, Hanks says, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be easy to finish.
"Let's take a look at one of the problems of war in Iraq," Hanks said. "The vast majority of Americans prior to 2001, never mind 2003 when the invasion began, had no idea that there was a huge difference between a Sunni Muslim and a Shia Muslim.
"I remember hearing the concept of they will greet us as liberators, and I thought, 'Well, why wouldn't they?' to some degree. Why wouldn't they greet us as liberators? We had no idea of what Iraq really was, the difference between these two sects and, by and large, the ongoing continuing tribalism."
Two and a half million Americans have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One in five of them have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or some form of depression, according to the RAND Corporation.
"It's going to go on for the rest of their lives," Hanks said. "The most horrible statistic that I have heard about our current state of the greatest country in the world has been that we are about to, if we haven't all ready, surpass the number of suicides from veterans than were actually killed in the war itself.
"I will never be able to find the right and wrong between these wars other than it would be nice if everybody were free and could read whatever book they want, and little girls wouldn't get shot for writing blogs about what things are really like in their village. Without a doubt, it shouldn't be that way," Hanks said.
More Americans have died by suicide this year than those who were killed by insurgents, The Associated Press reported.
"This says something about the good news and the bad news about the way we fight these wars now," Hanks said. "The good news is that the medical equipment is much better and the technology and the equipment will keep people alive. The bad news is what about after. You can't just come back, shake it off for a few months, go to college for a while on the GI bill and be just fine and dandy. Never mind the people who are suffering with missing limbs who are all sorts of other bodily injured that need a brand of hospital care and physical therapy that is going to go on for years and years and years."
Hanks had a message for his fellow Americans about the state of our active-duty members and veterans.
"It's not just our job, it's the duty of the rest of the country in order to care for these people after the fact," he said. "Otherwise, what does that say about us as a democracy?"
Hanks isn't just talking the talk. He is putting his time where his mouth is, and has begun mentoring Army veteran Gabriel Posey for ABC News' "Stand Up For Heroes" series.