The War on Veterans

Congress and the White House are much better at starting wars than cleaning up after them.

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Do you remember Cory Remsburg? He’s the Army Ranger who received a standing ovation from Congress during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago.

Applause is nice, especially from such influential people. It sure beats those cuts the Pentagon wants to make to veteran benefits.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is now trying to sell vets on his plan to scale back the number of U.S. troops, as well as what taxpayers are spending on active-duty and retired forces. After he announced his ideas, Hagel brought them straight to a town hall meeting with soldiers at Fort Eustis in Virginia. “There was no applause,” Military.com reported.

Before and After a War, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Before and After a War, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Whenever Washington winds down its wars and our troops become needy veterans, interest in their welfare always flags. Senate Republicans just blocked a comprehensive $21 billion bill that would have beefed up veteran education, health, and other benefits.

But that’s not all. Food stamps were just cut for some 170,000 vets, pensions will soon decline, and the Department of Veterans Affairs admits a backlog of 393,000 benefit claims after making great progress toward getting caught up.

About 30 percent of the vets who serve in war zones return from the battlefield with undiagnosed or untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. Some half a million are suffering from it now.

Clearly, Congress and the White House are much better at starting wars than cleaning up after them.

Military debates in Washington generally revolve around the costs of manpower, equipment, and logistics. Finding the money needed to cover the medical bills and pensions of veterans is always harder to squeeze into the federal budget.

The Pentagon only lists 19,000 troops officially wounded by enemy action in Afghanistan and gives them good care. The other hundreds of thousands with mysterious brain or emotional injuries have to prove it. But first they need to succeed in gaining an appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs — better known as simply the VA — and demonstrating that they were honorably discharged.

That can be tough.

William Dolphin, a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran, is now fighting for that right in federal court. The Army gave him a bad conduct discharge years ago for being AWOL upon confusion over where he was supposed to convalesce after leaving the hospital. He’s been suffering from PTSD for four decades.

“All I’m asking is that the Army recognize that I served my country proudly,” Dolphin says.

There’s another new lawsuit filed in March by a group of Vietnam vets who went through a similar ordeal. It’s seeking class-action status.

And things haven’t changed much since the Vietnam War. Washington still sees wasting record sums of money on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a high priority while vast numbers injured veterans go without adequate psychiatric care. At least 55,000 veterans remain homeless despite the existence of dozens of programs that specifically target this problem.

If our leaders really want to honor Cory Remsburg, they should stop making people go through what he experienced. It’s time to stop waging unnecessary wars and start taking better care of our wounded warriors.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Follow her on Twitter @ESGrecoOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. OtherWords.org

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We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism

Chuck Hagel proved to be an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty in the Senate, and these days that qualifies for sainthood.

By Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul

The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.

Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?

It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.

He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?

Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.

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Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.

He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.

He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.

This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.

Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)

Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.

He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.

It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.

I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”

Hagel could be that voice.


OtherWords
columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Distributed by OtherWords.org