January 29, 2009 –
Paul Sullivan is a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, serving in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq as a Cavalry Scout with the Army’s 1st Armored Division.
As executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center from 1997 to 2000, he advocated for the passage of the Persian Gulf Veterans Act of 1998, which expanded health care and disability benefits for Gulf War veterans. From 2000 to 2006, he was Veterans Affairs project manager, leading a team that produced reports related to the Gulf War, Iraq war and Afghanistan war.
Sullivan is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans and is presently the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a Washington nonprofit organization focusing on issues related to national security, veterans’ rights and benefits and civil liberties.
Two days after the inauguration, Paul spoke with me about a number of topics, including: the lies, drugs and poisons involved in the Gulf War and its current sequels; the suicide epidemic among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; the rash of homicides around military bases; the need for a truth commission; skewed research on Gulf War illness at VA; signs of conspiracy and subterfuge; the legacies of Bush 41 and Bush 43; the first days of Barack Obama; and his hopes for Michelle Obama as a true friend of veterans and veterans’ families.
Nora Eisenberg: You’ve been involved with veterans’ issues and rights for close to two decades — as a veteran and advocate for veterans. Why have you devoted your life to this?
Paul Sullivan: The military taught us a valuable lesson during war: never leave a fallen comrade behind. We are now applying that essential lesson for use outside the war zone: We must never leave a fellow veteran behind.
Most people don’t know that under a little-noticed 1991 law, the Gulf War began on Aug. 2, 1990, and it continues through today. The devastation that began with the bombing of Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, continues through today. … Out of 700,000 Gulf War veterans, 290,000 filed disability claims against VA. VA also reports that 250,000 Gulf War veterans sought medical care at VA hospitals.
Friends of mine completed suicide after the Gulf War because VA delayed or denied assistance. A few friends suffered without answers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, for years before dying early, often after fighting VA.
The Gulf War continues as the new Iraq and Afghanistan wars. VA reports an additional 330,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have already filed disability claims against VA, and 400,000 have already been treated at VA hospitals. That’s a grand total of 620,000 disability claims and 650,000 veteran patients.
We continue fighting for veterans because they need it, and because we are successful. Our 2007 lawsuit forced VA to establish a toll-free suicide-prevention hot line. In the first 15 months, the hot line received 85,000 calls and performed more than 2,100 rescues of suicidal veterans.
We fought for and secured $1.8 billion in emergency funding in 2007 that VA used to hire thousands of new doctors and claims processors. VCS testified repeatedly about the need to reform VA’s broken claims system, and Congress acted by passing an overhaul bill in late 2008. Yet much more work needs to be done in 2009 and beyond.
The time has come to bring common sense to our U.S. government — we must end the wars, bring our troops home with a responsible plan, provide medical care and benefits to our veterans, begin repairing our Constitution and our international reputation, and create a truth commission that will present the facts about the causes, conduct and consequences of the war to the American public. Then we can learn from our mistakes and move forward.
Now that President Bush has been peaceably removed from office, President Obama need only sign an executive order to end the wars (see Title 38, United States Code, Section 101, Paragraph 33). Congress also has the authority under the Constitution to end the war. Yes, it is that simple.
NE: Your organization, Veterans for Common Sense, addresses veterans’ issues as well as issues of national security and civil liberties. Why have you expanded your work to include these other issues? How do they relate to veterans’ issues and rights?
PS: We have always focused on national security, civil liberties and veterans since VCS was founded in 2002. We were formed by Gulf War veterans who questioned former President George W. Bush’s misleading comments about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and his rush to invade Iraq without international support.
We were fully aware that George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, also misled America into supporting the 1991 Gulf War, and we wanted to avoid repeating that mistake.
VCS also opposed former President [George W.] Bush’s now-documented ordering of illegal torture against enemy prisoners of war because it endangers the welfare of our soldiers captured by the enemy. Torture is also morally wrong and prohibited by the Geneva Conventions the U.S. agreed to uphold, and by several U.S. anti-torture laws. On March 10, 2003, VCS sent a letter to Bush detailing our concerns.
Experts also agree that little to nothing is ever obtained from torture, no matter how many episodes of Fox’s “24” series Bush administration officials watched.
We support the United Nation’s Special Torture Rapporteur’s recommendation that former President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld be pursued for war crimes, especially their orders to torture humans in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
We also support the formation of a “truth and reconciliation commission” empowered to determine the facts about domestic spying, torture and the suspension of habeas corpus during the past seven years. Our veterans should play a special role with this commission … set the record straight that former President George W. Bush lied to start the Iraq war and that our nation must provide for the service members and veterans harmed by Bush’s actions.
While we must remember the past so we avoid repeating it, with the election of President Obama, we are focusing on how to move forward and repair VA and honor our nation’s obligations to our veterans, national security and civil liberties.
NE: Let’s start with a very recent development. In November, the Research Advisory Committee issued a report declaring Gulf War illness to be a “real” illness caused by toxins that troops were exposed to in the 1991 Gulf War. Why did it take 18 years for this clarification? To what extent was the case for causality made earlier? It seems to me compelling evidence was available as early as 1998.
PS: The evidence that the illnesses among Gulf War veterans were related to toxic exposures was compelling in March 1991, when veterans first reported symptoms — symptoms ignored by the military. That’s when the military cover-up of Gulf War illnesses began. One of the first documents produced by the military after the Gulf War cease-fire in 1991 said that depleted uranium should be hyped as successful, lest it be removed from the arsenal because the dust from it is so toxic.
We have made so much progress thanks to the heroic work of Jim Binns, the chairman of the Research Advisory Committee, Lea Steele, the scientific advisor for the committee, Gulf War veterans Steve Robinson and Steve Smithson, and all of the other outstanding individuals on the RAC. They should all be commended for fighting for science, as well as fighting against the small handful of career bureaucrats at VA who blocked research, health care and benefits for the estimated 210,000 Gulf War veterans who remain ill after deploying to Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1990 and 1991.
There are two reasons a few malicious VA employees fought against our veterans. The first reason is the exorbitant cost to taxpayers who were told the Gulf War was nearly free. If DoD and VA had admitted Gulf War illnesses were real back in 1991, the costs for providing health care and disability benefits to hundreds of thousands of veterans for several decades would have easily cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.
Second, there is the loss of face. If DoD and VA confirmed the U.S. government was responsible for some of the toxic exposures, such as pesticides and depleted uranium, then that would tarnish the carefully crafted government propaganda machine message that erroneously declared the Gulf War was a clean and low-casualty conflict.
Now that the facts are in, we know that the Gulf War was very expensive, very dirty and resulted in hundreds of thousands of long-term casualties in the form of disabled veterans exposed to dozens of toxins. As of February 2008, out of 700,000 Gulf War veterans, nearly 290,000 had filed disability claims against VA, and nearly 250,000 had sought health care from VA. Congress never asked for, and VA never provided, a cost for medical care and benefits for our Gulf War veterans.
Unfortunately, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are worse in terms of costs and lost reputation. We expect the rate of claims and health care demand among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans to be significantly higher than Gulf War veterans due to prolonged combat, longer deployments, repeat deployments, the availability of five years of free VA health care, and a domestic economy going down fast because of Bush’s Iraq war fiasco.
NE: Over the years, the Institute of Medicine, at the request of the VA, has produced many reports on Gulf War illness. They all claimed the relationship between wartime toxins and the symptoms of the Gulf War veterans was inconclusive. The RAC called their research “skewed” and “unscientific.” How did that happen? Are there particular people responsible in the VA, DoD or other halls of government? Or is it just systemic neglect and incompetence? Or both?
PS: The RAC is correct. VA, IOM and DoD staff are more than just negligent and incompetent. A few staff remain malicious toward our veterans — they continue blocking scientific inquiry into toxic exposures and block health care for ill veterans and block compensation benefits for disabled veterans.
There are two reasons why much of the research by VA and DoD was skewed and unscientific. First, the VA research was focused primarily on stress instead of serious and significant toxic exposures among hundreds of thousands of troops in the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Iraqi deserts. As one discredited Army general confessed, the military never thought toxic exposures caused by the U.S. were responsible for the illnesses among so many.
Here is what the RAC reported, based on a Feb. 23, 2001, military press statement:
“[Acting special assistant to the secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses, Army Lt. Gen. Dale Vesser] remarked that although Saddam Hussein didn’t use nuclear, biological or chemical agents against coalition forces during the war, ‘it never dawned on us … that we may have done it to ourselves.’ “
The military never even considered these harmful exposures — the heavy use of pesticides, the mandatory use of experimental PB pills and anthrax vaccines, the fallout from bombed Iraqi chemical weapons depots, or the dust from the widespread use of depleted-uranium ammunition fired by our tanks.
The 18-year Gulf War will be described in our history books as the world’s largest friendly-fire incident — where our military unwittingly harmed thousands of our own troops.
Second, the IOM did find some associations between toxic exposures and illnesses during their literature review, but the associations were not strong enough, in VA’s opinion. … VCS believes that IOM and VA staff conspired to exclude animal studies from the literature review and thereby deprive veterans of desperately needed health care and benefits.
Yes, there are specific VA staff at VA’s Washington headquarters and at the Pentagon who are responsible for blocking research to understand Gulf War illnesses and for blocking research for treatments for our veterans. VCS is urging Congress to investigate the VA-IOM contracts and hold those responsible accountable. …
(To learn more, see the VCS letter to Congress about the VA-IOM contract disaster.)
NE: How do you move on from outrage or frustration and sadness to energetic agendas for the future? Like in the case of the RAC, you were able to point out quickly next steps such as ensuring funding, investigating interventions and establishing treatments programs. How do you do that? What do you do with the negative feelings?
PS: I’ll admit it is tough to keep fighting to reform a $100 billion, 270,000-person bureaucracy. In our favor, we have the large numbers of veterans and families, plus the moral and legal high ground. We also have the facts and science on our side.
Our military training taught us to stand up to the 500-pound bully called VA. What was once an agency designed to care for veterans has gradually turned more adversarial in the past few decades as the rules and laws for benefits became highly complex.
Our inspiration to fight for each other comes from Vietnam War veterans and Bonus Army veterans, who faced even greater hostility from our government. Actually, fighting with veterans and against injustice is an honor and is very therapeutic.
To learn more, please read about the Bonus Army, and also read Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement, by Gerald Nicosia.
NE: Let’s move on to veterans of the current wars. We’re hearing more and more about their mental-health problems — a suicide epidemic, suicide clusters in Houston, homicide clusters in Fort Carson [in Colorado]. Are these real? How widespread and serious is the mental illness of recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan?
PS: Yes, there is a tragic and enormous suicide epidemic among all our veterans and most acutely among our young Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. According to facts VA was forced to reveal during our lawsuit, 18 veterans complete suicide every day, and 33 veterans receiving VA medical care attempt suicide every day.
… The statistics show our new soldiers are far healthier, both physically and mentally, than civilians who never served in the armed forces. However, after deploying to war, veterans are more likely to complete suicide than non-veterans. We are forcing VA and DoD to admit there is a problems and take steps to fix it.
Younger veterans are three to four times more likely to complete suicide than non-veterans of the same age, based on research conducted by the University of Georgia at the request of CBS News. Veterans for Common Sense worked closely with CBS investigative producers and reporters for five months and sent scores of Freedom of Information Act requests to VA.
VCS forced VA to admit there was a suicide epidemic as a result of our lawsuit … filed after VA repeatedly refused emergency mental health care for suicidal veterans. We uncovered many incriminating e-mails showing VA was aware of the suicide epidemic and actively concealing it.
Of the 1.83 million service members deployed to the two [Iraq and Afghanistan] war zones … 400,000 became unexpected patients treated at VA hospitals and clinics. Of the 400,000 patients, 178,000 are diagnosed with a mental-health condition, including 105,000 diagnosed with PTSD. A shocking 7,400 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are diagnosed with drug dependence.
In 2004, there were only 238 drug-dependent veterans from the two wars. In 2007, the military denied the link between war deployment and drug dependence. In 2008, they changed their position.
Please remember that when President Bush sent our soldiers off to war, he sought to cut VA funding and restrict access to care for hundreds of thousands of veterans. Furthermore, even after seven years of war and a tidal wave of patients, Bush never developed a plan to provide long-term health care or disability benefits. In fact, Bush fought very hard against restoring education benefits to the level World War II veterans received.
Bush’s incompetence and malice resulted in VA facilities being unprepared and then refusing to provide medical care to suicidal veterans in desperate need of care. We sued VA to raise awareness about the issue and force the courts, the Congress and the VA to act.
VA documents revealed during our trial proved there was an epidemic and that VA was lying about it. In response to our lawsuit, VA set up a toll-free suicide-prevention hot line. In the first 15 months of operation, more than 85,000 people called it, and more than 2,100 rescues were made. …
The murder-suicide cluster at Fort Carson, and the suicide cluster among Houston-area Army recruiters are just the tip of the iceberg of a serious and expanding nationwide problem. We can either start bringing our troops home now and provide prompt high-quality care, or we can continue the current wars and watch a social catastrophe continue unfolding before our eyes.
NE: In the 1991 Gulf War, stress and PTSD was misused to explain the causes of Gulf War syndrome or illness. What are the possible culprits in psychiatric ailments of today’s new veterans, besides stress and trauma and situational depression? Could neurotoxins be involved again? What about traumatic brain injury of a more subtle variety — where there’s no apparent injury? How can we insure that it doesn’t take 18 years to distinguish affective and cognitive disorders stemming from organic disease from essentially psychological conditions?
PS: PTSD is real, and it is adversely impacting Gulf War veterans. VCS encourages veterans from all wars experiencing readjustment concerns to seek VA care, as it may save their life, their marriage, their job and their peace of mind.
Yes, the many neurotoxins on the battlefield, plus repeated traumatic brain injury will make diagnosing PTSD more difficult, especially since some TBI wounds are not detected by current technology. … Between multiple deployments that exacerbate PTSD and TBI, and the induction of an unknown number of what would have been unfit recruits in 2000, it may be difficult to sort out some cases.
All we can hope for is that DoD will tighten recruiting standards, provide the mandated pre- and post-deployment medical exams for PTSD and TBI, and then provide treatment. We can also hope that DoD and VA continue expanding research to better understand and treat PTSD and TBI.
NE: Since the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. has used depleted uranium. The RAC has identified neurotoxins and not DU as the major culprits. Still, others like Pentagon researcher Alexandra Miller have provided compelling evidence about the dangers of DU. What’s your thinking about DU and veterans’ health? Is it an issue for Gulf War veterans? Veterans of today’s wars?
PS: Depleted uranium is a very serious toxic hazard for our troops, period. Neurotoxins are also dangerous. The scientific research conducted by the military on lab animals links DU with cancer and birth defects. DU remains a very serious issue for Gulf War veterans because hundreds of thousands of veterans were exposed to DU during Desert Storm in 1991. The exposures were from shrapnel, inhaled dust and infected wounds.
The issue is equally serious for our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans because DU remains in our military’s weapons arsenal. The Pentagon and VA have engaged in one of the most dishonest propaganda campaigns ever by spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to promote the mistaken idea that DU is as harmless as table salt. … Once the current wars end, the military’s stubborn opposition to releasing facts about DU should wane. That is yet another reason to want to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
To learn more, read the many excellent reports on DU written by Dan Fahey, including his recent testimony about DU before the Institute of Medicine.
NE: Let’s talk about toxic exposures in the current wars. Brown water, open incinerator pits, industrial and military sites leaking toxins — there has been concern about all of these in relation to troops’ and veterans’ health. What do you see as the scope and nature of the problems? What should/could be done?
PS: The widespread presence of toxins remains a serious concern. What should be done? First, Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates should order that the cover-up stop. He should demand that the facts about battlefield exposure levels and exposure durations be revealed in a transparent process.
Second, Gates should make sure our soldiers receive their pre- and post-deployment medical exams, as required by law. This will further document exposure levels and durations for individual service members.
Third, Gates should order that exposures be eliminated or mitigated as much as possible by returning our troops home. Unfortunately, the last step may prove difficult given the existing battlefield conditions where immediately fighting the enemy in the present always trumps concerns about the long-term adverse health impact of environmental hazards.
NE: I was horrified to read about soldier’s being killed by electrocution due to faulty electricity under the watch of Kellogg Brown and Root. Can you talk about KBR, Halliburton and/or other U.S. corporations in relation to soldiers’ and veterans’ health?
PS: We, too, are upset at soldiers getting killed or injured due to faulty contractor work. Contractors and mercenaries have no place on the battlefield fighting for a democracy. In our view, the government must retain a monopoly on the use of deadly force during war.
Sadly, former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney “privatized” war with no-bid contracts to mercenaries who are political cronies from the extreme right wing. This new type of “War by KBR, Halliburton and Blackwater” has proven to be a disaster.
One reason mercenaries and contractors should be banned from the battlefield is because of Blackwater’s notorious reputation for recklessly killing civilians, as thoroughly documented in Jeremy Scahill’s excellent book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Mercenaries have no rules of engagement, and they were immune from any prosecution in Iraq until very recently. In contrast, our soldiers do have rules of engagement that restrict when and how they can use deadly force. In addition, our troops can be, and sometimes are, held criminally responsible for their actions in the war zone.
Another reason mercenaries and contractors have no place in a war zone is because their No. 1 goal is profit — all they want is money. That is markedly different from the No. 1 goal of our military service members — protecting and defending our Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. A person cannot defend our freedom while simultaneously promoting profits for a distant corporation that answers to no one.
NE: The system that rotates the same people in and out of military, industry and government has been called the iron triangle. Do you think this is a valid description? If so, what do you see as the consequences of this system for veterans, troops, citizens, national-security policies and an open and democratic society? What can be done to challenge this entrenched system?
PS: The iron triangle is also called the revolving door, where a person moves between three distinct groups: A government agency, such as the Pentagon, a congressional oversight committee, such as Armed Services, and an interest group, such as a defense contractor.
While there are some benefits to having people with experience in all three, there are also significant adverse consequences when the same people populate all three for extended periods of time. When the relationships within the iron triangle become too close, and objectivity is lost, or when the relationship hinges on profits instead of progress for people, then the interests of the people are not served.
For the VA, the iron triangle includes VA, the congressional oversight committees (Veterans’ Affairs), and the veteran service organizations (VSOs). Two of the larger VSOs include the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, two conservative groups that participated in pro-war rallies at the White House. The Legion went so far as to promote unilateral and pre-emptive war before the invasion of Iraq, what we now call the failed “Bush Doctrine.”
From the period starting January 2001 and ending December 2006, the iron triangle was securely conservative and Republican, with VA, Congress and major VSOs at all three corners. … In most cases, an insulated iron triangle dominated by one extreme ideology can lead to group think. … During nearly all of the Bush administration, VA suffered from a very serious case of failing to plan or to think outside the box.
Fortunately, the new Congress seated in 2007 conducted significant oversight into VA policies and practices, and this provided a positive and progressive shot in the arm for VA.
We hope that limited view under the Bush administration changes with the Obama administration. With the formation of new and younger veterans’ groups, and the sharp drop in membership of the older conservative groups, we may see some changes in how the iron triangle performs in 2009.
NE: You were involved in writing a section of the American Veterans and Servicemembers Survival Guide. The title suggests it’s dangerous to be a veteran in America. What makes you think that?
Yes, you are correct, a veteran would be negligent and naïve to seek VA health care or benefits all alone. … If a person was in a serious car crash caused by a negligent multibillion dollar corporation that resulted in long-term disabilities, then that person would exercise common sense and hire an attorney. …
It is fair and reasonable for a veteran to be able to hire an attorney to obtain VA health care and disability benefits worth an estimated lifetime value in the millions of dollars. … Currently, veterans may hire a lawyer only after a VA office has issued an initial denial. Obviously, an attorney can assist a veteran or surviving family member with locating evidence and presenting the best cast at the start.
Unfortunately, since most attorneys helping veterans with appeals come into the process at the end, the veteran often waits through years of complex appeals before eventually winning their claim. This backwards thinking has helped clog the VA claims system.
In 2009, VCS is promoting the idea that VA should go to where our service members and our veterans live. VA can do this easily by opening up permanent VA benefits facilities at all military bases and in suburban areas.
NE: We’ve had a history of the government hiding the truth about soldiers’ service exposure and the sickness that results — the fallout from atomic testing, Agent Orange, the recently exposed pesticides and anti-nerve gas pills in Desert Storm. Why do you think there’s so much subterfuge? What are the subterfuges in today’s wars that most concern you?
PS: Why? Money and reputation. The military remains more concerned about saving money in the short term and with glorifying war so recruits will want to join. The military uses the same tactics over and over again to avoid responsibility.
The military initially tries to hide the facts, usually by failing to collect data about the release of toxins and the exposure levels among our troops. … Then the military tries to block congressional hearings, investigative journalists and scientific research. For example, the Pentagon fails to answer legislators’ questions, refuses to answer reporters’ calls and rejects proposals for scientific inquiry.
Then the military launches a public relations offensive with a narrow message that floods the media and claims “everything is OK.” For Gulf War veterans’ illnesses, the military set up commission after commission and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on press releases saying it cared for our troops. Some of the same Pentagon staff have worked to fight against veterans for more than a decade.
After many years of delay, often after many veterans died or legislators moved on — such as the strong veterans’ advocate, [former] Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn. — the military passes the ball to VA to admit there might be some small problem. VA then provides paltry benefits to a few veterans, declares the problem solved, and then DoD and VA walk away.
In other words, due to the enormous costs associated with admitting liability, VA and DoD often appear to view toxic exposures as public relations problems they can fight by blocking science and flooding the press with useless propaganda.
Our job as veterans’ advocates is to explain how the government conceals toxic-exposure incidents. Then we bust the issue wide open as early as possible so that data collection and scientific research can begin. With reliable scientific evidence, we can make sure veterans’ illnesses are considered public-health issues so our veterans are promptly treated and appropriately compensated …
NE: It’s never been very popular for Americans to talk about the suffering of our enemies, even civilians; but since 9/11, it seems dangerous, as we run the risk of being called un-American and soft on terrorism. And when we don’t consider Iraqi death and illness — and even the most progressive politician steers clear of the subject — we antagonize the rest of the world. How do you balance concern as a U.S. citizen and advocate for U.S. veterans with concern for others, especially when the suffering of these others is on a much greater scale? And related to that, how do you respond to anti-war sentiments when they morph into anti-GI and U.S. veteran sentiments?
PS: VCS is different, as we believe all people are equal. We are not afraid to discuss how former President Bush’s pre-emptive and unilateral war against Iraq, based on lies, resulted in untold hundreds of thousands (or more) civilian deaths. In March 2003, VCS raised the concern there would be a humanitarian crisis in Iraq if Bush attacked.
Consistently since then, VCS has editorialized about the need to take care of all people impacted by war. … Unfortunately, the Bush administration and the media went to great lengths to demonize Iraqis and Arabs. We should focus on moving forward and repairing the damage the failed Bush Doctrine caused around the globe, from war to global warming.
America, we believe, has evolved and progressed, and you would be hard-pressed to find anti-veteran or anti-soldier sentiment among reasonable people. … Dozens of polls clearly indicate the public knows more facts about Bush’ lies, and … strongly opposes his war policies.
We are also moving forward with making sure that we do not hold our soldiers responsible for the actions of the prior Bush administration. We note there is an obvious exception: our troops convicted of individual war crimes, such as brutalizing or killing civilians, should be held responsible.
Unfortunately, what we have seen is a misuse of our service members and veterans by the recently departed Bush administration. For example, Bush repeatedly spoke in front of soldiers who were ordered to remain silent and to clap. Such abuses must end.
In another example, Bush repeatedly used wounded veterans in photo opportunities to give the appearance he respected our service members. However, his administration was working diligently to block access to medical care and disability benefits for hundreds of thousands of veterans.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney misused the honor of speaking before veterans in 2002 to spread lies that Iraq was linked with 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction, two claims he knew to be false. Again, anyone using our veterans as a propaganda prop must stop.
VCS wants Americans to learn more about and correct the root causes of terrorism. We hope that any truth and reconciliation commission will look at the underlying causes of terrorism. The glib reasons often claimed by the Bush administration, such as “they hate freedom,” are obviously bogus. Osama bin Laden himself listed the U.S. forces occupying Saudi Arabia as one of his top reasons for attacking the U.S.
A commission should look at underlying issues such as the lack of healthy food, clean water, robust education, jobs and health care, as well as the lack of political, economic and social equality, to name a few. Our reliance on foreign energy supplies and our excessive consumption should also be evaluated.
NE: You are an avid fighter for veterans, and you are also a critic of many wars and rampant militarism. How do the two relate to one another? Why do you think the view that the two are contradictory — that you’re not supporting the troops if you want to stop a war — has held such sway?
PS: Calling for an end to the Iraq war fiasco and asking that our troops be brought home is supporting our troops. In contrast, starting a war based on lies or without a plan to win harms our troops and our nation’s reputation.
We hope President Obama ends the war with a responsible plan that takes care of our troops and restores stability to Iraq — a nation that suffered 2 million internally displaced, 2 million international refugees, and up to 1 million killed due to Bush’s war. We look forward to learning more about how he plans to use his strong election mandate to end the war and rebuild our economy devastated by excessive corporate greed, tax cuts for the rich and a terrible war.
Our nation is strong when we are free, informed and actively engaged in the political process. When we speak at public events, VCS frequently hands out copies of our Constitution with a sharp request to read it, understand it and live it. We are born free, and our Constitution helps people understand our rights so tyrants may not usurp our freedoms.
When anyone uses fear in an attempt to restrict our freedom, such as the Patriot Act, uses lies or propaganda, such as those to start the Iraq war, or tries to restrict our access to our political process, such as the recent bogus voter-ID laws in several states, then we must remain vigilant and stop these tactics. …
Our service members agree to do one thing when we join the military: protect and defend our Constitution. The more people who read, understand and live our Constitution, then the greater protection we have against tyranny and the misuse of our government and military.
Since the notorious Gulf of Tonkin Resolution … our nation has been misled into two more major wars: the Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq war in 2003. Americans often forget that former President George H. W. Bush and his defense secretary, Dick Cheney, misled America about the Gulf War.
Top public relations firms were paid millions of dollars to fabricate Iraqi atrocities to inflame passions and start the march toward war. Even Gen. Colin Powell misled America in 1991, stating Iraq was prepared to attack Saudi Arabia when, in fact, there were no Iraqi troops near the Saudi border, according to satellite photographs published before Desert Storm began.
NE: The Bush White House in its last weeks issued reports that cast George Bush as the friend of veterans. I gather you think the record shows otherwise. Can you give us some examples of especially craftily distorted data?
PS: Veterans for Common Sense will be issuing a detailed report, full of official VA and military statistics, describing the status of VA when the Bush administration departed. In an effort to move forward from the past eight years, VCS hopes our report serves as a yardstick to measure the progress of the Obama administration in addressing the needs of our veterans and their families.
The biggest propaganda statement not addressed in our upcoming report is where Bush repeatedly stated that he supported our service members and veterans. The facts show Bush did not support our troops or our veterans. His actions sank far below incompetence and tumbled downward past malicious.
In addition to the carnage and the destruction he ordered against Iraq, President Bush is personally responsible for nearly 5,000 service member deaths, more than 76,000 nonfatal battlefield casualties and more than 400,000 unexpected veteran patients from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars treated at VA hospitals and clinics.
As commander in chief of our military, Bush failed to listen to national security advisors between January 2001 and Sept. 11, 2001, and bears some responsibility for not heeding the warnings about the impending attacks, according to the book The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission by former New York Times reporter Phil Shenon. His book documents that Bush was briefed more than 40 times about Osama bin Laden before 9/11. … Many of Bush’s catastrophic failures were compounded by conservative ideological rigidity and his inability to listen to facts.
By ordering torture, by ending habeas corpus and by spying on innocent American citizens, Bush trashed our beloved Constitution — the very document our soldiers fight to defend. Bush then lied to start his war and sent 1.8 million Americans to fight a pre-emptive, unilateral war against Iraq that did not need to be fought.
Bush was president when the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal shocked us all — a brutal betrayal that came nearly two years after his botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans. Bush then fought against VA benefits for our returning combat veterans. The same soldiers given Purple Heart medals by Bush at Walter Reed would languish many years without VA disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and then be turned away from VA hospitals when they became suicidal.
Bush also turned a blind eye to violations of religious freedom in our military. For example, a few troops were proselytizing Iraqis by handing out religious material. In another example, a soldier shot a Quran. In a third example, some officers illegally tried to convert our soldiers or block their free exercise of religion. All of these examples are excessive violations of our Constitution that undermine freedom.
To learn more about this, please contact Mikey Weinstein at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.
Bush will be as reviled as much as Herbert Hoover … who ordered the violent removal of our peaceful Bonus Army veterans gathered on the National Mall to press Congress and Hoover for deferred compensation for fighting in Europe during World War I.
NE: Looking ahead, what do you hope that the Obama administration will accomplish for veterans, veterans’ health and national security? What do you find most encouraging in his statements and actions? I know you’re concerned about his statements about widening the war in Afghanistan. Why?
PS: Veterans for Common Sense issued a detailed report, “Our VCS Vision for a Vibrant VA in 2009.”
We are currently reviewing his policy statements on Afghanistan. While efforts in 2001 appear reasonable to defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the war has turned into a bloody occupation. First, we need an accurate, complete and consistent assessment of facts on the ground, a process made nearly impossible by the propaganda efforts of the former administration.
We are troubled that military efforts in Afghanistan appear fleeting and that the Taliban controls major sections of the country, even going so far as to cut off the vital main supply line from Pakistan going through the Kybher Pass. Corruption and drug crops appear to be flourishing even as more U.S. troops flood into Afghanistan.
We will remain engaged on this issue because the combination of deployments to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has seriously undermined the ability of our military to protect the United States, which should be their primary function.
In the interim, we are exceptionally pleased to learn President Obama ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp, ordered an end to torture and is already evaluating how to bring our troops home from Iraq.
NE: Michelle Obama has expressed special interest in veterans issues. Have you had contact with her? What do you expect that she will be able to accomplish for veterans and their families?
PS: VCS is very pleased at the strong interest shown by Michelle Obama in our service members, military families, veterans and veterans’ families. VCS has not had contact with her. We hope she will continue meeting with these groups as our best advocate inside the White House who definitely has the ear of our new president.
We are impressed with the broad plan for our veterans that President Obama has outlined at his new White House Web site.
Nora Eisenberg is the author of the novels The War at Home, a Washington Post Rave of the Year 2002, and Just the Way You Want Me, awarded the 2004 Gold Prize for Fiction from ForeWord Magazine, the weekly of independent publishing. Her new novel, issued this month by Curbstone Press, is about troops returning home from the 1991 Gulf War, and the unexpected price of war for young victors and their families.