from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Monday, February 28, 2005

What happens to veterans when they come home? 

After WW I we did not do a very good job in transition American servicemen back to Civilian life. The financial aid that was promised was for far in the future. Once the Great Depression hit, the Bonus Marchers converged on Washington to pressure Congress to advance the payment of those bonuses. Not only did they fail to convince the Congress, they were subject to one of the more embarrassing moments in the history of our nation's Capital when Douglas MacArthur used regular army troops to disperse them and destroy their encampment.

We did a far better job after WWI and Korea. By then we had the GI Bill in effect. And the nation was committed enough certainly to the first of those conflicts, and to a lesser degree to the latter, that returning veterans encountered little hostility. Although it certainly was not all peaches and cream -- one of the best protrayals of what some veterans faced can be seen in the Academy Award winning film "The Best Years of our Lives."

Veterans returning from Vietnam encountered a far different scene. For one thing, the country turned against the war in a fairly large way, and many veterans unfortunately encountered hostility upon return home. Another problem was that transition was in many ways too rapid -- in a combat zone until one's year was up, then back in the states and discharged within several days, thanks to the speed of jet travel.

In some ways the military has learned its lessons from previous conflicts, but in other ways it has not. We can see on 60 Minutes that soldiers in units that lose people in the ongoing strife in Iraq are receiving counseling even while they remain "in country." And certainly many have earned money for college through the Montgomery GI Bill.

But in other ways the government has acted atrociously towards our veterans, especially but not exclusively those who have served in Guard and reserve units. There have been far too many stories of people being billed for their meals while in military hospitals. And Guard and reserve members have encountered unconscionable delay in attempting to obtain treatment at VA hospitals.

Congress has adderessed some other issues -- raising the amount of money paid to the families of those who die from combat related causes. But the DoD has resisted apply those payments to people who die of such injuries after they are returned to the US or to military bases overseas, even if there is a direct connection between in-country injuries and the death. And the military has absolutely stonewalled on paying in the cases of the servicemen and veterans who commit suicide.

It is the issue of suicide that may be most troubling. The Marine Corps has acknoweldged a significant increase of suicides in its ranks, which is commendable, although as of yet there has been no significant endeavor undertaken either by the Marines (my own branch of service in the 1960s) or by the other services to address the causes of such suicides.

We have placed servicemen in harms' way often without the proper preparation for the tasks to which we have assigned them. They have been asked to do things that afterwards haunt them, such as those involved in shooting and killing what turns out to be harmless civiliains, including women, children, and the elderly. We have put them into situations without the proper equipment -- the famous case of the unit that effectively munitied because they were being ordered to drive unarmored fuel trucks through a hostile environment is but one such case.

How are they treated when they return home? I see little evidence of the societal hostility encountered by many Vietnam-era vets, with one notable exception -- the soldier responsible for disclosing the horrors of Abu Ghraib has had his life threatened. But that is both a different and exceptional case, and I will not attempt to deal with it here.

Besides the lack of equal access to care at VA hospitals, there is one other area of mistreatment. Veterans are returning home after tours of duty and being forced to re-up, even if they don't want to. Because the Army, Guard, and Marines are having increasing trouble meeting their enlistment quotas, servicement who would normally go into an inactive reserve status are being threatened that if they don't re-up they will be kept in with a stop-loss order and transferred to units that scheduled to rotate back to Iraq. Further, Reservists who should be rotating off of active duty are having active tours extended, and are finding that they face additional service in the mess that Iraq continues to be.

We have come close to breaking our military. We have been unfaithful to the trust we owe those who serve not only by placing them in harm's way for no good reason, but by not fulfilling the commitments we made to them when they agreed to serve. And because others can see all of this, many who might otherwise sign up for military service arem now reluctant to do so.

We the American people have not yet been told the true costs of this war. It is not the almost 300 billion dollars that has now been committed, nor the almost 1,500 dead Americans, the additional thousands wounded and psychologically damaged, the ongoing costs for medical care for those injured, the loss of productivity of those lives shattered both physically and emotionally. It is not even just the opportunity cost of what we could have done instead with those moneys and those lives, although certainly that is important, and is an issue I will address anon. It is also the loss of trust in what our government has told us, for an increasing number of Americans. It is the use of this conflict as an excuse to to restrict civil liberties here at home, it is the involvement of Americans in torture ... but these issues are independent of the veterans.

We learned yesterday that Saddam Hussein's half-brother had been turned over by the Syrians. He was one of the aces in the "deck of cards" of high value targets we wished to capture or kill. Let's even assume a double-deck -- 104 high value targets. He we instead of going to war told each of those people that if they left and went to any country willing to take them we would give them and their families 100 million dollars for heac of the 104, the cost would have been less than 11 billion dollars, and many thousands of lives, and not having destroyed the infrastructure of a nation. Heck, if done a sliding scale, the total cost could well have been half of that, leaving 5 billion for administrative costs in setting up a transition government.

A government that betrays its trust to those it asks to serve is a government in trouble, one that, regardless of the votes it recieves, ultimately lacks legitimacy. Johnson and Nixon discovered this during the Vietnam conflict -- and it came close to destroying this society and this Republic. What we face now is, although the number of American dead and wounded are so far much less, is something far worse. Whther it is not allowing the press to see the returning caskets arrive at Dover AFB because we did not want the public to know the true cost, lying about the reasons we went to combat, refusing to provide honest accounting of projected costs in a timely matter so that the American people could factor that in to their electoral decisions, personal destruction of those who opposed going to Iraq in the first place, this government has betrayed its commitment to those whom it requires to serve on our behalf. And it its moves to use torture, to deny civil liberties, to refuse to accept oversight by Courts, Congress or independent commissions, it has demonstrated the ultimate betrayal of the veteran. We have taken lives,bodies, minds of our young [and not so young] service personnel for a lie. They are not fighting and dying to protect the US, because Iraq did not represent a threat. They are not fighting and dying so that the Iraqi people could be free -- as noted, that could be accomplished with costs far less in lives and treasure; also, Bremer as Pro-Consul has so bound any future government that that nation will be crippled economically, and to ensure that they do not reject the illegal strictures we placed on them, we are building 14 permanent bases in Iraq, an action not specifically authorized by the Congress and hence patently unconstitutional.

For those who like me opposed the war and oppose this administration, it is important not to make the mistakes made by opponents of the war in Vietnam. Even if a veteran tells you he's proud of what he did, there is no point trying to disabuse him of his beliefs. Understand that if one cannot in some way validate one's actions, one is then faced with the horrible proposition that one's participation represents acts of evil. That is a large, and unfair, burden to palce on those subject to military discipline. Rather, acknowledge their willingness to to serve -- and perhaps die -- for that in which they beleive, but then tell them in your mind the country owes them better than what they have received. Only if they want to dialog futher should you proceed with the conversation.

We know that many Vietnam-era vets surfferedn long-term problems -- alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, flashbacks, all kinds of psychological traumas. Regardless of what else we who opposed this war do, we should insist on the nation providing the rousrces, facilities, and access for helping those veteran of this conflict for as long as they may need sujch help, regardless of the financial cost. And that cost should be paid by dropping the tax cuts for those weathy who don't need it, and by a tax on profits for those corporations who have obsecenely profited from our adventure in Iraq.

I did not serve in Vietnam, although I served during that period. But I have seen the effects of that conflict both on this nation and on those who served. I am dedicated to the proposition that we not again misuse the lives of our military. To me to act on this belief is the highest tribute I can pay our veterans, and those who did not survive to become veterans.

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