Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veterans Day 2009 – A Personal Commentary

Dave_CollinsDave Collins (Left) with vets
© 2007 Andy Urban

A couple of days ago a well meaning guy I know sent me a note about the Andy Rooney commentary on the Nov. 8th broadcast of 60 Minutes. Rooney, speaking as a veteran of WW II, decried the glorification of war on a holiday established to celebrate the end of WW I – what we now call Veterans Day but which was originally called Armistice Day. While I applaud and fully support Rooney’s call to “re-brand” the holiday as “No War Day,” his commentary touched a raw nerve I know he never intended; and neither did the guy who sent the message to me originally. Rooney also used the term “small wars” to describe those in which this country has engaged – almost continuously – since WW II. That reference became my point of departure for this


As a veteran of one of those "small wars" in which we dropped more explosives from the air than in all of WW II and in which we killed between 2 and 3 million people (but I mean, what's a million "gooks" give or take?), I would just as soon see Veterans Day abolished all together. I would also like to see yellow ribbon stickers outlawed along with "We Support the Troops" signs in business and all the other feel good BS of that ilk.

Why would I say such a thing? Well, let's consider.

Following the Revolutionary War (Britain's "War on Terror") the soldiers of the long suffering Colonial Army had been promised land to farm (which would have meant, for many, the ability to vote in the new nation they fought to found). But, many never saw their land, having been swindled out of it. You would know the names of some of those swindlers, as they are among the "Founding Fathers."

Ten years after the end of the Civil War, reports of homeless and disabled veterans of both armies were common throughout the cities of the country, including Washington D.C. and the home of the Constitution, Philadelphia . By the way, it was after that war that what we now call PTSD was first given a name - it was called "soldier's nostalgia." The nation did little for the homeless or the mentally and physically damaged vets.

Following the "War to End All Wars" we were treated to the sight of 17,000 veterans encamped on the grounds of the nation's capital; the Bonus Army. Promised compensation for their service, they traveled to the Capitol in the midst of the Depression to ask that those payments be accelerated in recognition of the dire conditions facing them and their families. On orders from Hoover, General Douglas McArthur and Major George Patton then led the mounted charge against those veterans, killing some and injuring many. What few possessions the men had were destroyed. Veterans of that war suffered "shell shock" and, according to USMC General Smedley Butler's account, were literally caged like animals (see War is a Racket , full text available at this link).

A nation terrified by the prospect of a return to the Depression conditions that preceded the "Good War" and faced with millions of returning veterans, many from families of standing and power, delivered the GI Bill. That magnificent piece of legislation in a large way created the world into which I was born. I think for most folks like me, it represented what we assumed had always been the standard this nation set for care of returning warriors. When I enlisted in the USMC in 1967, I knew nothing of the abandonment and despair of many veterans of the war we would not even call a war, the "police action" in Korea . That knowledge would only come later. I would also only later learn that great advances had been made in treating what was then called "combat fatigue" among the survivors of WW II. That treatment was called tax exempt bars at the Legion and VFW Halls of the country, where the vets could self-medicate on the cheap.

"We're mad as hell and not going to take it any more" could have been a slogan for the veterans I joined with in 1971. Once the American War in Viet Nam came to an end, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and our less political spin-off Vietnam Veterans of America (founded by Noble Peace Prize winner and "disabled" Marine vet Bobby Muller) set to work to fight for care for those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD. We eventually won that war, sort of. At much the same time and under the leadership of Max Cleland, another seriously "disabled" vet from our war, the VA finally - in the late 70s - began to drag itself into the 20th century of medicine, up from the hell holes Bobby and Max found as they fought to recover from paralysis and multiple amputations.

But then came Ronnie Rayguns and by the time the troops returned to the yellow ribbons and hero's welcomes from the massacre in the desert, the VA had slipped back into its under-funded, and too
often vet-hostile norm. The so-called "Gulf War Syndrome" received the same reception as did complaints arising from Agent Orange. At current count, roughly 60% of those who served in Operation Desert Storm have filed claims with the VA, too many of those claims remain in limbo.

It should be unnecessary to recountthe horrors facing the veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, but the reality is that only a very small percent of the US public has any idea what these vets face in combat or on their return home. The under-funded and weak VA inherited by George W. Bush has been decimated by an 8 year frontal assault - culminating with the reign of terror inflicted by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson who believed that most veterans seeking VA services were malingerers. That VA now tells multiple tour veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury, PTSD, Depleted Uranium exposure (another Agent Orange story) or plain-old amputations and spinal injuries, "you'll just have to wait your turn." And that turn is a long, long time in coming, for a great many. For too many, it does not come in time.

And finally, today, I received a copy of the Press Release issued by the U.S. Census Bureau regarding veterans. Among the various facts and figures presented is the median annual income among veterans in 2008; $37,000. Compare that figure with the median annual income reported by that same Census Bureau for the country as a whole; $50,000.

So, from where I sit, this nation can take its Veterans Day banners, parades (from which veterans wishing to express the sentiments embodied in Armistice Day are routinely excluded) and red-banner sales of goods manufactured in China and shove it all where the sun don't shine.

There is nothing about which to be happy on Veterans Day in this country.

Dave Collins

USMC 1967-71

RVN 1968-70

Vietnam Veterans Against the War

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