Our Veterans Deserve Better
(dedicated to all those who served)
I don’t know what it says about us as a country, but America’s veterans have not fared well throughout history. The first veterans’ pension law was in 1776, half pay for the disabled. We weren’t a nation then, and records were poorly kept or lost. Another law after the War of 1812 paid only those “unable to earn a living.” We did what we could.
The incredible carnage of the Civil War left 600,000 dead, still our costliest war in loss of life. At the start of the war, the Union army had less than 100 doctors. There were no antibiotics back then, the main medicines available being alcohol, quinine, and morphine sulphate, to ease pain. Medical technology was pretty primitive, and there were all too many amputations that wouldn’t be necessary today. Veterans were given a small leather pouch of morphine, and good luck. Little could we know we were creating a generation of morphine addicts. According to soldierstudies.org, by the 1880s there was “still a population in the North and South that drifted from soldier home to soldier home, from town to town, jail to jail, and some (perhaps many) living their last days at insane asylums.” Families often waited eagerly for their loved ones to return, only to discover that the boy who left for war returned almost unrecognizable. It was called “Soldier’s Heart,” but today we know it as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or PTSD. In World War I it was called shell shock, in World War II and Korea it was battle fatigue or combat exhaustion. No one who hasn’t been in combat can know the horrors of the experience.
Do you know what they called PTSD during and after Vietnam? “The war comes home.” I served in the Army from 1966-1970, and was fortunate not to be in combat. I knew several people who went over there, and those who came back were really changed. One of them gave me a pretty good idea of what it must have been like. He said for the longest time he was afraid to go to sleep. When he was in Nam, he’d often dream of being home. Back at home, as he was drifting off, he’d hear a sound. Was he dreaming he was home, or was he home? He’d reflexively grab for his weapon, because if he was wrong he could wake up dead. That was a deeply unpopular war in the public mind, and veterans were treated harshly, spat on, or called baby killers. Besides all that, many were ill from the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, (there are many deformed babies in Vietnam today, 40 years later). Many of them are still fighting the VA for compensation, and many more live on the streets.
Have you ever heard of the Bonus March? World War I veterans were promised a bonus in 1924, but budget wrangling postponed it to 1945. Vets called it “the tombstone bonus,” because they’d likely die before they got it. During the Great Depression in 1932, there was a nationwide movement forming (without social media!), and on May 29th many began to march on Washington, D.C. By the end of July a camp at Anacostia Park, on the outskirts, had over 20,000. It was the first occupy movement, and also one of the largest integrated groups ever to protest. President Hoover shrugged it off, calling it a “temporary disease,” and commented that “the marchers have rapidly turned from bonus seekers to communists or bums.” On July 28th police tried unsuccessfully to clear the camp. Shots were fired, and there were a few deaths. In late September, fearing more violence, the military moved in, under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Tanks and troops rolled through the city, and 200 mounted cavalry, sabers drawn, were led by executive officer George S. Patton. All this in complete disregard for the Posse Comitatus law of 1878, which forbid the military from enforcing civilian law (see also Kent State and Jackson State in 1970). Only two months before the Presidential election, Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt said, “This will get me elected.” He was, and it still took till 1936 before a compensation act was passed. We did better after World War II with the G. I. Bill, as a generation went to college or trade school, and helped built a robust middle class. It’s been calculated that for every dollar spent on this program, it returned seven in economic activity due to better wages for educated workers. Unfortunately, many black veterans were denied the benefits, and after the Korean War, too, but this was more due to racism rather than veteran status.
As of July 2012, there are 21.8 million veterans in America. Of the 2.5 million who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 1.6 are veterans, many of multiple deployments. The sheer amount of disability claims has overwhelmed the Veterans Administration’s ability to deal with them. There are over 500,000 claims of PTSD, 130,000 TBIs, (traumatic brain injuries), 350,000 for hearing loss or tinnitus, ringing in the ears. So waiting lists grow ridiculously long, or they’re falsified, like the scandal this spring at the Phoenix VA. Many of these claims are for multiple ailments. Plus, many serving G.I.s were or are been given anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and other dangerous and habit forming drugs, so drug addiction has become another disability. That’s not all. Beginning in 1991 during the first Gulf war, bullets and munitions were coated with DU, depleted uranium, a known carcinogen, but really good at penetrating armor. Claims for cancers caused by exposure to DU will be difficult to prove and may drag on for decades — this generation’s Agent Orange.
Suicides among veterans are another atrocity (among active duty personnel, too). I’ve tried to find statistics for Vietnam vets, and they’re all over the place. The CDC officially lists 3752, which is ridiculously low. The upper figure of 160,000 can’t be confirmed and is probably way high, but no one really knows. It may turn out to be around the number of our dead in that war, 58,000. The figures for today seem to agree on about 22 veteran suicides each day, an obscene number.
The number of homeless veterans has been difficult to find, as are accurate statistics for the general homeless population. Between one in seven and one in four of the homeless are veterans, from the sources I’ve studied. Either number is shocking.
There’s good news, too. Once in the VA’s health care system, called TRICARE, veterans are nearly universal in their praise of the program. It’s just getting into the system. There are also a lot of advocacy groups like Operation Home Front and the Wounded Warriors project. Many veterans’ associations offer valuable help, one of the best being the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA.org). It’s good that these services are there, but they’re too little and too poorly funded. Our veterans deserve better than this. It’s a sad thing, but there’s a large public sentiment to “Support our Troops,” especially among chicken hawks on the Right, but once these people have been used up in their wars, well, I guess they can just go to hell. I think of lot of veterans would reply: “I already been to Hell, pal. What else ya got?”
As with Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been unpopular with the public, and many see these people as chumps who were really fighting for the big oil corporations. While that may be true, we must remember that whether misled or not, these people put their lives, their limbs, and their sanity on the line for their country. One would think these would be the very last people to treat badly. Their sacrifices should be honored. In any decent society, they would be. So I’ll say it, if no one else wants to: thank you veterans, for your service.