Editorial Column: How We Can Really Honor Our Veterans

Belleville News-Democrat

May 22, 2008 – Memorial Day is upon us again, and the more traditional towns will be flying flags and hosting parades and holding ceremonies to honor the million American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who’ve fallen in the wars of history and in the wars of today.

It is good to honor the fallen and to comfort the families and friends who mourn one among them whose death broke their hearts.

This year, however, I’ll depart from tradition and ask that we reflect less on our fallen comrades who are at peace, and more on those veterans – especially those from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – who are alive and need our help.

How strange that today in our country, in a time of war, battles are raging over the need for medical care, educational benefits, employment opportunities and assistance for those who’ve served honorably and come home to begin new lives in a nation they risked their lives to defend.

The shameful thing is that most of those battles are being waged against the very government, the very bureaucracies, the very politicians who sent those young men and women to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maybe the right word here isn’t shameful, but criminal.

On Capitol Hill, our lawmakers debate the pros and cons of a new GI Bill that would provide our latest combat veterans with education benefits at least equal to those that their grandfathers received when they came home from winning World War II.

Our president has threatened to veto that bill if Congress passes it. The Republican candidate to succeed him, Sen. John McCain, a veteran and former prisoner of war himself, refuses to support that GI Bill and offers a watered down, cheaper substitute.

The Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, a former university president, oppose better educational benefits for veterans, for fear that offering them might entice more young troops to leave the service for the campus.

This is odd, coming as it does from a president who talks a lot about supporting our troops, from a senator who draws a 100 percent military disability pension and from a former college president who surely knows the value of higher education.

Others among us wage endless battles and rage against the very agency charged with providing medical care, disability pensions, mental health care and counseling and, yes, the parsimonious educational benefits for all who’ve served and sacrificed for our country – the Veterans Administration (VA).

In recent months, VA officials have been caught providing false statistics that far understate the true number of veterans, old and young, who commit suicide. They’ve ordered doctors to diagnose fewer cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and to substitute a diagnosis of a lesser, temporary stress disorder.

The young people marching home from war and trying to rejoin civilian society, get a job and start a life aren’t having much luck, either. The government’s own statistics show that fully a quarter of returning veterans are employed in jobs that pay wages that put them below the poverty line, or less than $21,000 a year if they’re single.

Marine Maj. Gen. (ret.) Matt Caulfield of Oceanside, Calif., knows that the young men and women leaving military service today are the finest he’s ever known in a long career in uniform – yet they’re having a hard time finding good jobs.

“The CEO’s and chairmen in industry all say how their companies want to hire veterans,” Caulfield told me. “But this is simply not translating downward to the people who do the interviews and make the hiring decisions. A veteran is someone alien to your average corporate hiring manager, who is a 28-year-old woman with a college degree.”

Caulfield, a veteran of two combat tours in Vietnam, said that government and industry are both failing miserably in providing job opportunities for this new generation of veterans. He called it a scandal when some of the best and brightest and most motivated of their generation are consigned to jobs flipping burgers or, worse, to the street corners in big cities where they hold up cardboard signs that advertise: “Homeless Veteran – Will Work for Food.”

So let’s review the bidding here this Memorial Day.

Let’s all pay lip service to Support Our Troops. But if we want to be honest, we should edit those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers to say Support Our Troops – As Long As It Doesn’t Cost Anything.

Let’s acknowledge that this new generation of soldiers and Marines is amazingly motivated and talented. They’re expected to be good killers, good diplomats and ambassadors of American goodwill who operate under impossibly complex rules of engagement in impossibly dangerous and deadly environments.

But if they come home wounded, their brains rattled by the huge IED’s of the new way of war, and if they suffer the horrors of PTSD nightmares and flashbacks, let’s dump them on the streets with the least amount of help and benefits possible, as cheaply as possible.

For sure we don’t want to improve their chances, better their future prospects, by offering them the same college benefits we gave their grandfathers six decades ago. God help us if they all get college degrees and figure out what we’ve done to them.

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