Monday, November 11, 2013

Who Cares for the American Veteran?

We in the US celebrate our Veterans this weekend and Monday. It's a tradition that we've embraced since the bloody end of World War I. It's about remembering, heralding, and supporting our military veteran.

The trouble comes in when it's more in words than in action.

We sadly don't have the best history of supporting our armed forces outside of wars. We have been slow learners.

by Henry Alexander Ogden
After the American Revolution there was a good deal of discontent in the military. Pay was getting delayed. And there were serious questions about if soldiers would get the pensions they had long been promised. The Treasury was low on cash. Congress was divided on what to do, some eager to renege on the pensions. It lead to a conflict among the army that was stationed in Newburgh, NY. Fear was growing that the Continental Army could pick up arms and go to war against the fledgling government. Some were eager to use the discontent to their ends. George Washington worked to keep things stable and then, with an official end to hostilities, disbanded the army. To an extent pensions were paid, but many were unhappy and many were left without. The focus of support was on those veterans that were disabled. It proved a continuing problem. Twenty some years later new law was made to help homeless veterans of the war, but it proved hard to actually get the aid.

Then in the years after the Civil War veterans again found themselves in need of support. Again, veterans struggled to get aid. In states like New York, there were thousands of homeless veterans. The efforts to help veterans led to the formation of groups like the Grand Army of the Republic, which advocated for veterans. And these groups were needed, as it was a fight to get support. Though Lincoln did get support to form National Asylums for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. -- Also, Confederate veterans were not recognized by the federal government as veterans (But that's the kind of loaded issue you end up with when you have a civil war.).

Things did improve. During the later part of the 19th century some new laws went into place opening up aid to larger numbers of those veterans injured (the burden put on veterans to get help was lessened some). Also a general pension was created to act as a fund for future expansions of pension needs (i.e. future wars). In 1912 the Sherwood Act was passed. This allowed veterans of the Civil War and Mexican-American War to get pensions due to old age.

Then after World War I returning veterans found some aid in slowly expanded laws to help insure them for death. Also $60 discharge allowance was established. Other interest taken was to help rehabilitate and offer job training for veterans that were disabled.

In the years after the war, most of the national veterans service were consolidated into the Veteran's Bureau, then it became Veteran's Affairs.

Then when the Great Depression began, it hit veterans hard, a bonus was created. But it was meant to be paid slowly. Large sums of the money was paid in Certificates of Service, which would mature in 20 years. Veterans found they couldn't survive on it. So 10's of thousands began to march, and began what became known as the Bonus March, or the Bonus Army. They made their way to Washington DC, and then camped. Part of the reason they came was to rally for a bill that would have offered them bonuses to survive. This bills was defeated in Congress. After this, they decided to stay and make there presence and problems known.

There were questions of the health and safety in the camps. But in the camps a level of order was maintained. People needed to register. Those that registered needed to show that they had been honorably discharged from service. The ex-soldiers worked to keep order. And then they built sanitation facilities to try and keep things healthy.

But there was also a dislike of the fact they wouldn't leave and were creating bad publicity for the government. They weren't just dissipating as demanded. So President Hoover authorized General Douglas MacArthur to march on the camps with the 12th Infantry, the 3rd Cavalry, and 6 tanks (under the command of Major George Patton). First the cavalry charged the crowds. Then, firing tear gas into the encampment, the infantry entered, bayonets attached to their rifles. They drove out the veterans and their families (because this camp was full of women and children as well). In the process the camps were burned to the ground, and the property of the protesters was destroyed. (Dwight Eisenhower was MacArthur's aide at this time. He wrote the report on the incident for MacArthur.)

In the years that followed, Congress finally passed law to immediately authorize payment to veterans of World War I. And under the New Deal, many of the veterans found employment and support.

It was at the end of WWII that we found ourselves (as a country) a lot more interested in the futures of our wartime veterans. This is when the GI Bill came into being. This offered a wide range of support and opportunity to returning veterans. Money to buy homes. Support to get an education. Money to start businesses. One year of unemployment support. It had and has a large impact on the veterans, and the country as a whole.

But it took a long road to get to the GI Bill. During the post WWI arguing over bonuses many said, that it was insulting to think you have to pay people to go to war. Apparently, it should be an honor to die or be traumatized for your country. Insulting. But this was the attitude.

Still, it became clear that just offering a small stipend to people who you ask to go fight, kill, and die for you is unacceptable. If we are going to have a military, if we are going to be at war, then the armed services and veterans are due the means to come home, reintegrate, and take a valued part in society.

So, now let's look at ipmacts that some think are acceptable for our service people today.

As we've seen this November, SNAP (food stamp) support has been cut. And additional cuts are being pushed in Congress. Add to this the contempt thrown at SNAP users, by conservatives in the United States, that aren't disabled or dare own things like air conditioning.

The thing they are choosing to be oblivious of is that of those using SNAP, 5000 are active duty military with family. As well, up to 900,000 veterans are in need of SNAP in any given month. In discussing the impact earlier, we could see that families on SNAP were often struggling. And the new cuts are making things far rougher. In 2012, $99 million in SNAP support was used by military families and disabled veterans

These SNAP recipients, as active duty personnel with family and homes, are exactly the people that conservatives consider as scroungers and cheats. These are the people that opponents of social aid are eager to shame and ostracize.

And the reality that conservatives sadly choose to ignore is that all the social programs they abhor are programs that many veterans need, as do many active duty personnel (not to mention conservative voters). Medicaid, social security, food stamps, cuts to all these and more impact and hurt American veterans. All the conservative states that are currently refusing to expand Medicaid are dealing a blow to all the veterans who struggle to get by in their states. It's shameful.

Another area in which US service personnel are being hit is in access to military benefits. This year the Department of Defense finally agreed that gay married couples should receive the same benefits as heterosexual married couples. It was a long time in coming

But conservative state governments are working to keep these benefits from gay members of the National Guard. Specifically, 6 governors are. Oklahoma. Texas. Mississippi. Georgia. West Virginia. Louisiana. These are largely federal funds. But they are attempting to block the payments from being made. At this point, the money coming directly from the federal government will have to be processed specially for gay couples. But money and people tied to the state government will be denied. The idea they are embracing is that they have a right to discriminate and deny support to families based on their sexual orientation, even if they are in the armed services. So the National Guard is being used as a political football by these Republican governors.

Suicides are a continuing issue in the  military. There were 350 suicides throughout the armed services last year. Around 8,000 veterans committed suicide last year. Those in and out of service struggle with the stress and impact of their service. There are personal issues at work, dealing with infirmity, and other stressors. And the VA struggles to stay on top of these issues, as does the Pentagon.

And I also wanted to come back to the specter of homelessness. The plight of the homeless veteran persists. This is an ongoing issue that our society is struggling with. Let's look at some of the facts:
  • Veterans between 18 and 30 are twice as likely as the rest of the population to find themselves homeless. (8% of the overall population versus 17% of all veterans)
  • Over half of homeless veterans are disabled.
  • Half suffer from some form of mental illness.
  • Two thirds deal with substance abuse.
  • Veterans on average find themselves homeless longer than the rest of the population.
  • At any time there are around 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on the streets.
  • 1.5 million veterans are deemed to be at-risk of homelessness.
In a country that likes to talk about exceptionalism, about being the greatest country, about supporting the troops, this is unacceptable and interminable. And too many of us just accept this, and other social troubles. We need to work to make things better.

We have improved how we treat and view our veterans and soldier. But we can still do far far better.

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