The way our country treats returning soldiers is a national shame
Supporters of our invasion of Iraq cheerlead from their armchairs for the women and men of our military. Some folks send packages of goodies and letters to soldiers and sailors. Veterans for Peace stand on a street corner each week asking to bring our troops home. These are all examples of different ways we express our support for U.S. soldiers.
But what about support when they come back? While some historical references reflect an effort to support our soldiers upon their return from battle, our history of neglecting soldiers also flourishes and seems to be getting worse.
For example, in 1693 Plymouth Colony offered support with an order that any disabled soldier injured while defending the colony would be maintained by the colony for life. And in 1780, the Continental Congress offered half pay for seven years to officers who served until the end of the war.
However, the Continental Congress also promised some soldiers land in exchange for their service. Looking at genealogy sites on the Internet, one can find desecendants of these soldiers still trying to collect on those unfulfilled promises.
In 1917, Congress authorized disability compensation, insurance and vocational rehabilitation to help support the 200,000 wounded and 5 million returning soldiers from World War I.
On the other hand, in 1924, these same World War I veterans were promised a bonus payment of $1,000. In July of 1932, during the Great Depression, between 12,000 and 15,000 veterans and their families marched in Washington, D.C., to demand immediate payment of their bonus. They camped in shantytowns along the Anacostia River until their numbers grew to 25,000. At one point, 20,000 veterans walked slowly up and down Pennsylvania Avenue for three straight days protesting the government decision not to pay their bonus. By late July, riots began after police shot two of the marchers. Gen. Douglas MacArthur then led a machine-gun squadron, troops with fixed bayonets and a number of tanks to destroy the shantytowns and disperse the marchers with tear gas, injuring hundreds of veterans in the process.
In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights was enacted. Veterans were supported by providing money for education, low-interest mortgage loans and $20 a week while looking for employment.
While some of these benefits are still available today, nearly 300,000 current veterans can be found homeless each night, and more than 500,000 veterans will experience homelessness sometime during the year.
Korean and Vietnam veterans received little of the support and recognition that previous veterans received. Thirty years after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and suffering numerous medical problems, a neighbor of mine finally began to receive compensation from our government’s admission that Agent Orange is toxic.
Because of situations like this, nearly three times the number of Vietnam veterans died after coming home than died during the war.
Today, there are reports of U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, being secretly transferred from Andrews Air Force base, under the cover of darkness, to military transport planes and dispersed out to military hospitals across the country. Why? So that we do not see them.
Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers cannot be photographed returning home. Why? So that we do not see them.
Is this the kind of support we want to give to our soldiers? Hiding them from the public eye? Relegating them to the streets to fend for themselves? Are we trying to hide something?
Is it easier to support the mythical, invisible image of a brave soldier fighting for “glory” and “freedom” than it is to support the very real limbless, psychologically damaged or lifeless person returning from Iraq?
Why are we increasing spending in Iraq to make more disabled veterans, and then cutting spending to care for them when they come home by closing VA hospitals and decreasing benefits?
Come on. We can do better than that.
If we really want to support our soldiers, let’s demand proper medical care and compensation when they come home. Let’s make sure that every soldier returning from duty in a war zone is evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) so that we can detect and treat the estimated 1 in 3 Iraq veterans who will have it.
Let’s assure that all U.S. soldiers from the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq are tested for exposure to the wind- dispersed, depleted uranium (DU) that is suspected to have caused numerous illnesses in more than 200,000 Gulf War veterans, and has caused and will continue to cause birth defects, cancer and early deaths for decades to come.
Support our troops? Yeah, bring them home and help them heal.
Tim Pluta is a veteran currently living in Mars Hill. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org