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Suport the Troops, Support Yourself

CounterPunch: 2014


After returning from Vietnam and being discharged, I sought out a few of the self-help groups of veterans which had sprung up everywhere. Each time it was the same: a couple of guys loudly attacking our participation in the war and a couple of guys loudly saying it was not the fault of the vets and that the morality of the war should not be discussed. Myself and the majority were caught in the middle, thinking: “Yes, I have my opinions. But I have severe problems of my own. Who is going to help me?


Today, hundreds of thousands of veterans are asking the same question.     


On any given night, there are at least 420,000 veterans in the United States who are homeless. According to the federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), nearly 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were homeless during 2013, almost triple the number in 2011. Veterans are 50% more likely to end up without a home than other Americans.


That’s not all that’s likely to happen to you if you’re a vet. There is an ongoing epidemic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans, a problem made worse by the relatively new policy of sending troops back for repeated combat duty tours. During Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union message, recognition was given to Staff Sgt. Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger nearly killed by an explosion last October. At the time of the incident, Remsberg was on his tenth deployment to Afghanistan.


As a result, our troops are increasingly over-medicated. As of 2010, according to a Military Times report, nearly 20 per cent of active duty service members were taking one or more psychiatric medications. The use of such medications has increased 76 per cent since the start of the current wars. Air Force Times revealed that “cocktails” of drugs prescribed to Marine and Army soldiers had led to at least 32 accidental overdose deaths since 2007.


But even properly prescribed meds are often not enough. Twenty-two veterans take their lives every day. The suicide rate for young male and female veterans is growing.


What is being done about these problems? Doesn’t the federal government have a massive apparatus to take care of such issues?


Both the devil and the angel land on the shoulders of the Veterans Administration (VA) and its cabinet level parent, the Department of Veterans Affairs. On the one hand, the VA delivers mostly free medical care to millions of vets. I have several friends who use the VA and are quite satisfied with it.


On the other hand, as of 2013, retroactive benefits had been paid to the families of nearly 19,500 veterans who died waiting for treatment by the VA, as revealed in a report in The Bay Citizen. According to The New York Times, as of May 2013 just under 600,000 claims for disability compensation were designated as backlogged.


Matthew Goldberg, who served three tours in Iraq, told the Washington Post: “The VA tries to beat you into submission. They make it so difficult, guys give up.”  There are currently a quarter million veterans appealing decisions to deny or limit their disability claims, a 50 per cent increase since Obama took office. The Board of Veterans Appeals expects the number of pending cases to double over the next four years. A veteran who takes such an appeal through all available administrative steps faces an average wait of 1,598 days (over four years).


Rather than clear up its overwhelming backlog of pending cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs proposed to re-review more than 70,000 cases where it had already decided in favor of veterans suffering from PTSD. The Veterans of Foreign Wars said that “The review’s sole purpose was to revoke awards for disability compensation under the guise of fraud review.” Under pressure, the proposal was eventually withdrawn but the fact that it was put forward in the first place shows how hollow the mantra of “support the troops” rings in the corridors of Washington.


 The VA is a also a conduit for massive subsidies to Big Pharma, which supplies VA medical centers with huge quantities of drugs, some of which are helpful and some of which distort the delivery of good medical care. Either way, the taxpayer-funded guarantee of billions of dollars in profits to pharmaceutical companies siphons away money which could be used to create a backlog-free VA.


Paula Caplan, author of When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home, writes: “Whatever traumas or disasters increase human suffering, the mental health establishment and the pharmaceutical companies benefit from persuading us that the suffering is best labeled mental illness and best treated through the methods of therapist guilds and drug suppliers.” Caplan adds that the issue is generally framed as “The problem comes from within me, I want to be fixed” when the fundamental problem to be solved is the existence of war in the first place. Caplan points out that there are many other options for healing, including “talking with friends and family, exercise, involvement in creative pursuits, volunteer work, and having adequate food, housing, and employment.”


In order to appear responsive to the mounting list of veterans’ issues, the DVA has set 2015 as the deadline to complete its “Final Push to End Homelessness Among Veterans.”  In conjunction with that lofty goal, the DVA has allocated $600 million in funding for local groups serving homeless veterans. The 2015 deadline has no relation to reality. Examining the $600 million budget reveals that it’s not going to be used to purchase homes for vets nor is the federal government going to transfer ownership to veterans of any of the tens of thousands of properties it owns (homes paid for by the money of taxpayers, millions of whom are vets). Much of the $600 million will go to de facto homeless shelters and other programs which do not actually put vets into homes. Some of the money will go to help with mortgage payments to prevent foreclosure, but even that is a subsidy to the banks which own the mortgages. Each day, according to Amnesty International, those same banks foreclose on more than 10,000 homeowners, a significant percentage of whom are veterans.


Rather than a triumphant journey to zero homelessness, we are much more likely to see homelessness among veterans continue to grow. Jobs, the only real guarantee of having a roof over your head, continue to disappear and, according to USA Today, the rate of foreclosure is skyrocketing in the 163 Zip codes located closest to military bases. Amnesty International points out that there are approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. who are homeless while there are 18.5 million empty vacant housing units. The solution could be simple: Put the people without a place to live into the empty homes. That isn’t happening because the government chooses to protect the real estate industry and subsidize the banks instead of ending homelessness. You can’t do both.


The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, is a former four star general and Army chief of staff. Allison Hickey, the undersecretary who oversees disability compensation, is a retired brigadier general. They represent the rarified upper ranks of the officer class where the line often blurs between public service and private ambition. In my experience, officers at that level always parrot the line “The needs of the service come first,” which inevitably means the needs of the troops come last. The result is endless delays and ongoing attempts to take away benefits. Do the makers of drones ever have to wait for their payments? Are their invoices ever returned as “denied,” as are so many veteran applications for disability?


The DVA “needs to be run as a business,” like “an insurance company,” says Congressman Duncan Hunter, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, like an HMO. At times, that’s just what the VA resembles, with a large wing of its bureaucracy focused on denying benefits, the same as any other outpost of the healthcare industrial complex.


Are our current mechanisms for helping veterans inherently flawed or just inherently insufficient? Todd DiPastino, co-organizer of the Veteran’s Breakfast Club in Pittsburgh, wrote me that “the burdens combat veterans carry are the responsibility of non-veterans.” As a veteran who has received more help with my burdens from non-veterans than from the veterans who run the VA, my immediate response to that is enthusiastic agreement. But upon reflection, I think the question of who is responsible for what and to whom is more complicated. To unravel those complexities, we need to take a look at the role that veterans play in our national life.


There is a tradition among veterans that when they meet for the first time they say to each other: “Thank you for your service.” Civilians often echo that sentiment. What exactly are we being thanked for?


I was in boot camp in 1964 when Congress approved the invasion of Vietnam by American troops. Even though none of us could find Vietnam on a map, we were eager to go there. Somebody’s freedom was being messed with and it was up to us to set things right. On the other hand, we were also vaguely aware that 90 per cent of the world lived worse than our miserable boot camp existence. We wanted to defend that position too. As we would soon find out first-hand, our primary role was to ensure that a disproportionate share of the world’s resources kept flowing to the United States. We compressed all this until it became, in our minds, one inseparable thing mislabeled “freedom.”


These contradictions have shaped the special authority which veterans have in the American psyche. It comes from the sacrifice of so many sons and daughters, a river of blood and grief which has personally touched most Americans. It comes from the fact that our military has been the ultimate guarantor of our high standard of living at the expense of the rest of the world. It comes from the national chauvinism which colors so much of our country’s history.


It also comes from the three wars the United States has fought that Americans can be proud of. The Revolutionary War, which created the United States as a nation, was the first war of national independence, a war that helped to inspire world-shaking uprisings in countries such as France and Vietnam. The Civil War ended slavery. World War II, fought under the banner of the Four Freedoms, liberated the world from the grip of the Axis powers.


The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II reflect one aspect of our national character. The slaughter of the Native Americans and imperial ventures in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan reflect another. But in America we don’t like to make such distinctions. We say that war is bad (having long ago changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense) while reflexively supporting “U.S. interests.” There are three million men and women on active duty now and 22 million living veterans. Collectively, they have ties to most families in the United States. If we turn against what they do, are we turning against them? If we turn against them, are we turning against much of what is good in our collective history?


We don’t want friends or family members to come home in a box. But we also know that our military has ensured a standard of living for us much higher than that of the countries we invade. The end result is that we are conditioned by a twentieth century reality of guns and butter. This has made national confusion over peace and war, over support for the troops, impossible to avoid.


The political role of veterans has so far been pretty much cut and dried. Vets and their suffering are used with great fanfare to promote America’s drive for empire by everyone from the U.S. Army to the National Football League. Little noted is the way that veterans often do the exact opposite.


Legend has it that as many as one million people were members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War at one time or another. It is without a doubt true that at one point in the early 1970s there were groups of vets staging protests in almost every city and town in America. The war ended and the vets indeed played a role in that. The idea that veterans speaking out against war was the sole political role of vets gained traction because it “worked.” The idea that “support the troops” meant to bring them home resonated widely and still echoes today.


Veterans are certainly well-positioned to be champions of peace due to their military experience and due to the way that they can disrupt the simplistic messages of pro-war propaganda continually issued in their name. While the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the elegant wall in Washington D.C. emblazoned with the names of all U.S. military casualties in Vietnam, is studiously neutral on the issue of war, under the radar there are other quite different memorials. Arlington West, the passionately anti-war installations in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara put together by Veterans for Peace, takes its name from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. I have visited the Arlington West in Santa Monica on several occasions. Each Sunday morning on a long stretch of beach by the pier, a vast field of crosses is set up in the sand with the names of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Friends and relatives come and put flowers and mementos on the crosses. There is a cohort of flag-draped coffins and there is also recognition of those from other countries who were killed by U.S. military action. To stand in the middle of all that and take it in alongside other visitors from around the world is an overwhelming experience.


Pro-peace veterans have undoubtedly had an impact on public opinion. Since the first Gulf War, polls confirm that opposition to the wars in the Mideast has grown steadily among the American people. A study by the Institute for Southern Studies revealed that the South, usually the most pro-war section of the country, had become the most anti-war.


Yet despite such sentiments, the peace movement today is much smaller than it was during the Vietnam War or even during U.S. military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua. This is due at least in part to the fact that there’s so much else going on now in the United States. Unlike the fundamental economic stability of the Vietnam era when there was a job for almost anyone who wanted one, today the country is disintegrating rapidly.


If veterans’ voice of special authority is used only to agitate for peace, its power is limited, its full potential unrealized. Consider the possibilities. The VA, despite its many serious flaws, is also a reasonable facsimile of free universal health care for 22 million Americans. Everyone in the country is in favor of this version of socialized medicine. This puts veterans in a position to say: “I have free health care, everyone should have it.”  Veterans can also use their special place in the American psyche to say: “I deserve a place to live. So does everyone. I deserve an education. So does everyone.”


Changes in the makeup of our military potentially amplify the power of the voices of veterans. When I was in the military, the women served in separate branches and we had no contact with them at all. To this day, I have no idea what they did. Now there are 212,000 women on active duty and they serve with the men. There are now 1.7 million women veterans. There are 65,000 immigrants in the military, 11,000 of them women.


If veterans are going to speak out for a broad agenda, that will have to be reciprocated. The needs of military personnel, their dependents, and veterans for the basics of life have long been ignored by most organizations in America, except for the likes of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Influenced by the Vietnam experience, the conception that the special role of vets is to be authoritative voices for peace and peace only remains prevalent. Influenced by the Vietnam experience, the conception that “support the troops” means only to state that we want to bring them home remains prevalent.


As long as veterans are thought of by themselves and by others as a separate part of society with their own needs that only they have, progress will be minimal. On the other hand, are the problems of vets really all that different from the problems of the rest of the population? A lack of health care or housing is essentially the same for anyone it impacts and we should ask: Is the post-traumatic stress which results from war really all that different from the post-traumatic stress of prison violence, police brutality or domestic abuse?


The commonality of active duty personnel and civilians, of veterans and non-veterans, can also be seen in the fact that while America’s power elite continues to maneuver to eliminate Social Security, a Pentagon advisory panel recently proposed eliminating the pensions of all military personnel. Forty-five million Americans annually experience “food insecurity” (the threat of malnourishment or even starvation) and organizations such as Feed the Children and local food banks all across the nation must raise money to provide food for the children of military personnel.


Our commonality should lead us to confirm the obvious: Peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace cannot break out in isolation, it can only flower in a world where everyone is housed, fed, and educated.  


Instead of looking upon our veterans as a separate section of the population with its own special needs, let’s meet at that place deep in America’s soul where veterans are revered and move outward together from there. The Four Freedoms we fought for in World War II still await realization: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.


To get to that destination will certainly require a dramatic change of priorities in our war-driven economy. Maintaining a huge military machine once guaranteed our comfort, now it guarantees our poverty. With itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger today, war now threatens the continued existence of the human race.


The U.S. military budget, by far the largest in the world, is now nearly a trillion dollars a year. This grotesque diversion of our national resources isn’t driven by the costs of veteran or active duty benefits but primarily by the cost of maintaining several hundred military bases in 130 countries and by arms transfers to foreign governments. All guns, no butter. We need a different menu.


Lee Ballinger:

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