Friday, November 11, 2011

Red Tape for Veterans

An update: Memorial Day 2013.
I re-read this today and it makes me incredibly sad that really nothing has changed since I wrote this almost 18 months ago. In fact, I doubt that sequestration and more austerity is doing anything to get the needed care to those who deserve it.

An eye-opening long-form piece in Mother Jones from a couple months ago shows how PTSD not only ravages veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also their families. Here's to hoping that one day we can fix this. But our history as a country has shown that me that our propensity is to do anything but.

So today I memorialize the loss of our conscience as a nation towards those to whom today we pay lip service and barbecue in the name of, but also to remind us that wars don't only kill those who die in combat.

By Donny Brooks

In this time of Occupy Wall St and the Tea Party, it's important to remember, just like in Battlestar Galactica, All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. Red tape surrounds the system that our vets rely on for service, and it's the money in politics that is fueling it.

"You know, after the Civil War, veterans had to come to D.C. to get their pensions? They had to visit the office personally. They waited for a clerk to look through all the Civil War records until their papers were found. You know what the papers were bound with? ... Red tape." President Bartlett, The West Wing, season 3 episode 9, "The Women of Qumar."

After both the Revolutionary, Civil, and the First World War, the armistice of which we celebrate today as Veterans' Day, vets of those conflicts had to literally march on Washington in order to get what was due to them. In 1932 during the Great Depression, tens of thousands of unemployed vets marched on DC in what was called the Bonus Army or Bonus March. They set up tents and camped, not unlike the Occupy folks, and were forcefully removed, like the Occupy folks. (Although, as an aside, the Bonus Army was removed by use of military force, so it's a slightly different order of magnitude. But tell that to Scott Olsen, a marine who was shot in the head by a rubber bullet by Oakland police for his part in the Occupy Oakland rallies.)

And so it shouldn't surprise us that vets provide some of the backbone of the Occupy crowd. What does surprise me is the ridiculous accusations by those on the right that somehow these men and women are not patriotic or are un-American. I got into an argument today with some a$$hole on facebook who said it was inappropriate for a CA mayor to address the Occupy crowd today (something the right wing nut-o-sphere seemed pretty confident of today.)  I pointed out that the venerable American Legion who sponsors many of the local Veterans Day parades around the country was founded by a protest movement who marched on Washington to demand fairness from President Coolidge in the 1920s.  No response except for a repetition that these people were un-American.  I like what these OWS patriots had to say about that when Sean Hannity said the same thing:

During the runup to the Iraq War, one of the reasons I was so outspoken against it is because I know what the true cost of that war was going to be. Not just the financial cost (which has been staggering) or the cost in human life, but in the numbers of lives that were going to be disrupted and irrevocably changed. That so many of our young men and women would come back needing prosthetic limbs or major medical services for the rest of their lives. And how many countless more would battle the less outwardly apparent horrors of depression, drug addiction, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EVERY 80 MINUTES IN AMERICA, A VETERAN COMMITS SUICIDE. This is a national tragedy, and should be a shame, a dark mark on our national conscience as we commemorate this day honoring our vets' sacrifice.

And they ought not have to march, or Occupy, in order to get their fair shake. As reported in The Nation earlier this week, unemployment for veterans, especially wounded veterans, is about a third higher than the national average. Over 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night according to the VA, and another 1.5 million are at risk of homelessness or are in extreme poverty. Thank God someone knocked some sense into the bozos in Congress, who were finally able to pass at least one smidgen of Obama's jobs plan, one that would give tax breaks to businesses who hired unemployed vets.

Our Veterans' medical benefits system is a joke. It's underfunded, understaffed, and full of overworked, underpaid staff. Those who we should honor most receive among the worst medical care in the country.

And before we go talking about how it's because the VA is "socialized medicine," go stick a fork in your eye. Medicare and Medicaid are technically "socialized" as well, but their standards of care are much higher. Giving veterans a carte blanche for care at the facility of their choosing, the same way we let Medicare/Medicaid recipients choose their doctors, would be a good start, and turning our veterans centers and hospitals into world-class facilities for treatment of specific types of injuries mostly incurred by our vets (Traumatic Brain Injury or TDI, PTSD, and various types of physical therapy) would also be important.

"But we're broke!" the Tea Party argues.  We don't "have the money" to pay our obligations to those who gave the full measure of their devotion, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life. But yet somehow, just somehow, we can always find the money to make more war, and thereby create more veterans. It couldn't be the multi-billion-dollar industry of defense contractors who spend millions of those dollars they receive in no-bid, non-negotiable, undisclosed-to-the-public contracts to lobby Congress to send them more money. Couldn't be.

But we need to start thinking about a war like this, folks. The war is just the down payment. Every time we commit to a military conflict, we are obligating ourselves to take care of those people who would take care of us with their lives and livelihoods for the rest of their days. Because they stand on a wall and say No one is going to hurt you tonight. And for that we need to take care of them, and their families. If not, we are a nation of ingrates, a nation of liars, a nation of cheats-- a nation unworthy of the service of those who bravely wear our flags on their arms.

We need to do right by our veterans, by giving them what was promised, and find a way to end the triple barbarisms of suicide, homelessness, and substandard medical care.

Red tape has always existed, and always will exist. It is our duty to find it, and destroy it.

Today the red tape mainly comes from our broken political system. Neither party seems very keen on taking care of our vets, except when it comes time to take a picture with them. But when it comes to outright hypocrisy and obstruction, it is truly red tape. Emphasis on Red. Time and again the Republicans have blocked extensions or additions to veterans benefits. One example is Tom Coburn's (R-OK) anonymous hold on a vets bill in 2009.

The other threat comes from the Supercommittee and the threat to cutting veterans benefits rather than cutting the military budget. Unfortunately, even Obama's Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has succumbed to this thinking, claiming cuts to the military "invites aggression" but benefits cuts to the people who actually do (or did) the fighting is "the kind of thing you have to consider." Even regardless of spending, no one in Congress or the WH has a comprehensive plan for reforming the VA or making sure our vets are taken care of-- or even to make sure they don't have to sleep on the streets.

But the current system is geared for stalemate, and just like the reason we're "broke" and yet have plenty of money to start new wars, the thing gumming up the gears of our government is money in our politics.

And that is why I support those vets marching with Occupy today, and every day. They understand that, and they've been victims of it. Victims of the big banks who preyed on them, victims of a government system that values you only as much as you can write a check for, and that values corporate personhood more than the actual flesh and blood personhood of someone who sacrificed for their country. Hopefully their work will be remembered just as the Bonus Army of the Great Depression- and finally be able to cut through the red tape of partisan bickering and posturing to get something done.

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