July 21, Book Review: Martin Schram Asks Us to Remember the Bonus Army

Martin Schram: Remember the Bonus Army

On July 22, 1932, Republican President Herbert Hoover ordered active duty U.S. Army soldiers to violently smash a peaceful encampment of more than 17,000 World War I veterans who had marched upon Washington for benefits.  We should remember the Bonus Army so we don’t repeat what became a stain on our Nation’s honor.

Martin Schram, a Washington Post national affairs reporter, recounts the brutal Army cavalry charge 76 years ago this week as a harbinger of what may come if we don’t act fast to care for our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

The best history of the Bonus Expeditionary Force was told by Army veteran W. W. Waters.  And Waters’ leadership role is in the Bonus Army is detailed in a new book by Martin Schram, “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles,” now available from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.

This horrific event on the Washington Mall, where two veterans died and where veterans’ and families’ temporary shacks and tents were burned by soldiers, stands as a low point in American history.  The attack stands as a stark warning of just how petty, partisan, negligent, violent, and even brutally malicious our Nation can be towards our veterans.

Schram writes about how our government repeatedly betrayed our veterans, starting shortly after our freedom was secured from England.  For those who don’t know, in 1783 our unpaid Revolutionary War veterans chased Congress out of Philadelphia, sparking a crisis that would test our young Nation.

VA Abandoned Gulf War Veterans

In the first two chapters of “Vets Under Siege,” Schram superbly chronicles the stoic battle fought by Gulf War veteran Bill Florey, who, suffering from brain cancer, was abandoned by the Department of Veterans Affairs even after the Department of Defense admitted he was exposed to chemical warfare agents at Khamisiyah, Iraq on March 10, 1991.

The chapter reminded me of my deep personal involvement as a Gulf War veteran exposing the Pentagon’s cover-up of Gulf War illnesses, now impacting between 125,000 and 175,000 Desert Storm veterans.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, I eventually forced the Pentagon to admit that a total of more than 145,000 Gulf War veterans were notified they were at or near the Khamisiyah chemical warfare agent plume.

This toxic cloud of chemical warfare agents can be traced back to when the Reagan-Bush Administration sold poison gas to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein through the wheeling-and-dealing of disgraced former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Yes, this is the same discredited scoundrel Rumsfeld who said he knew where Saddam’s stockpiles were located in 2003.  Rumsfeld’s claim turned out to be a whopper of a lie, according my friend Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst.  We veterans knew the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were gone, but we joked that Rumsfeld “knew better” because he had the signed receipts from Saddam.

Due to several monumental bureaucratic blunders (a mixture of incompetence and maliciousness), the Pentagon and CIA failed to let the troops on the ground know about the massive stockpiles of sarin and other poisons at Khamisiyah before our troops blew up the weapons cache in 1991.

Schram does an excellent job collecting various government and press reports to paint a dismal picture detailing how VA remains in hopeless bureaucratic disarray.  He hits the target every time, with citations from several government reports.  His text book-like aproach should be required reading for Congress, the press, and the public, so we become familiar with government betrayals our veterans face during and after combat.

Schram’s Recommendations

In the final chapter the author lists several reasonable recommendations, one of them made by Veterans for Common Sense.  VCS suggests that the military and VA share records more completely and more quickly, so that our veterans don’t fall through the cracks.

There are two points where I could disagree with Schram.  First, he says that VA disability claim appeals take two years.  VA’s testimony on the stand at our trial in U.S. District Court earlier this year reveal the wait is nearly four years, twice what Schram reported.  Schram could have mentioned the trial.

On another point, I agree that veterans should be able to have greater access to private care when VA lacks capacity, especially in rural areas.  However, a “Vet Med Card” could open the door to privatizing VA, something that Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain dreams of doing.  No one wants the incompetent Halliburton or viciously violent Blackwater corporate mercenaries gutting VA or getting anywhere near our veterans.

Another VA Book?

While he places blame for VA’s failures where it belongs, on partisan political appointees such as Michael Kussman and Jim Nicholson, I’m still waiting for another book that could go further.  Much more needs to be unearthed and written about the subject of overhauling VA.  For example, where was Congress from 2001 through the end of 2006, when the Republicans were in charge and when VA’s systemic problems multiplied by orders of magnitude and became a full-fledged crisis?  Fortunately, since 2007, the new Democratic leadership in Congress began shining spotlights on VA’s challenges.

Another book could investigate VA’s outrageous union-busting efforts since 2001 that soured relations between VA staff and VA leaders.  This short-sighted anti-employee policy robbed VA and veterans of key internal suggestions to improve the quality and timeliness of claims decisions and healthcare.  What makes VA’s anti-union and anti-employee efforts sting is the fact that many VA employees are veterans, too.

Hopefully, someone will write a sequel about VA’s more pressing problems, such as how some veterans died and many more lost their freedom under the Bush Administration.  Veterans are dying because VA lacks clear guidance to make sure every mental health emergency is treated promptly and completely.  VA’s shameful abandonment of suicidal veterans, such as Jonathan Schulze, Jeffrey Lucey, and Lucas Senescall, who were each refused VA emergency mental healthcare, only to later complete a suicide.  Mental health problems due to multiple deployments are literally killing our military, as shown by the case of veteran James Dean.

Another author may pick up on Schram’s superb book and write about how the Bush Administration blocks voter registration and voting assistance for hundreds of thousands of our wounded, injured, ill, and homeless veterans.  How ironic that the President who loves to stand before service members and declare “Mission Accomplished” has so brutally betrayed our Constitution and the citizens who pledge their lives to defend it. 

I’m waiting for a prominent author to write a detailed book this year about  the dramatic Winter Soldier hearings that laid bare the truth of the vicious brutality on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s Next?

January 2009 offers an opportunity to overhaul VA, regardless of who becomes President, as most of VA’s political appointees are now running for the door and lucrative corporate jobs.  The sad part is that never before has VA been politicized in such an extreme partisan manner.  In the past few months, VA banned voter registration for our wounded, injured, and ill veterans in VA hospitals and VA nursing homes in a blatant effort to reduce the number of eligible voters in the November 2008 election.

And never before has a crisis loomed so large as this perfect storm slams VA.  Vietnam War veterans keep flooding in with Agent Orange and PTSD claims.  Older veterans keep seeking medical care and disability pensions after corporations have looted their retirement funds and terminate medical insurance plans.  And now Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans keep crashing VA’s gates in a tidal wave of demand for care and benefits in what appears to be two endless and unwinnable wars.

Schram’s best writing comes at the end, where he calls for a “Department of Veterans Advocacy.”  I like his idea. Such a name change would send a clear message to veterans and to VA staff that VA ought to think of our veterans, the protectors of our liberty, first.

Once we start moving on that proper course where VA serves as our veterans’ advocates, then we can begin real reform.  That means increasing VA’s staffing, increasing VA’s appropriations, improving VA’s budgeting process, implementing mandatory full funding for VA healthcare, streamlining VA’s lengthy 23-page claim form down to one page, and sending the important message to VA’s beleaguered staff that real help is on the way.

Finally, “Vets Under Siege” sends a broader message to all of America: Schram’s book is a “bold bugle call” for massive reform at VA, lest our Nation once again betray another generation who defended our freedom, as we did in 1783, 1932, the 1970s, and the 1990s.

Let’s follow Schram’s advice and Remember the Bonus Army, because that’s what led to the GI Bill in 1944, a critical lesson not lost on Vietnam War veteran-turned-Senator Jim Webb.

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