Traditionally, we Indians honor warriors. We honor not only our own warriors but also our adversaries when they act with honor as well as courage. The dominant culture has a mixed record in looking after warriors when the war is over. Trying to put warriors back in the position they would have occupied had they not gone to war is not awarding them an honor. It’s partial payment of a debt.
The United States got off to a bad start when pay of Revolutionary War soldiers was suspended during the war, in 1777, because the value of the “Continental” dollar was declining so rapidly as to make the currency near worthless anyway.
Dead Men Collect No Pensions
After independence was won in 1783, paying its soldiers quickly fell off the agenda of the new nation.
Revolutionary War officers formed an officers-only lobby called the Order of Cincinnati to get what they had been promised — half pay for life if they served for the duration. When it became clear the money was not there, George Washington brokered a compromise, a bond worth five years pay at maturity. Most officers sold their bonds at deep discounts and ordinary soldiers got nothing.
Congress finally funded pensions for indigent Revolutionary War veterans in 1818 and extended them to all surviving veterans in 1832 so the average age of the few surviving vets was 67. After waiting almost 50 years for what was owed them, most died within five years. Note that life expectancy at birth for those who served in the American Revolution was 36 years. The official history of the Department of Veterans Affairs relates that only 3,000 Revolutionary War soldiers drew any pension “at most” out of about 200,000 men and two women we know of who saw combat.
This tradition of delayed compensation for veterans continued in WWI, after which vets got a bonus certificate redeemable in 1945. The Great Depression intervened and most veterans found themselves unemployed. They began demanding early redemption of their bonus certificates and some 43,000 demonstrators, calling themselves the Bonus Army, came to Washington and vowed to stay — camping in public places — until the bonuses were paid.
On the orders of President Herbert Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur, supported by six battle tanks commanded by then-Major George S. Patton, attacked the Bonus Army and burned their encampments. Hoover got public blame and suffered retribution at the polls that same year, 1932, although it was retribution for the Great Depression that sunk him.
Newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with a smaller Bonus Army making the same demands, sent his wife Eleanor into the veterans’ camp alone. As a result of her negotiations, FDR issued an executive order waiving the enlistment requirements for WWI veterans so they could get immediate work with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Congress finally paid the bonuses — over FDR’s veto — in 1936.
President Hoover did leave one legacy for veterans when he proposed in his 1929 State of the Union to consolidate all veterans’ programs that had been spread across three bureaus into one agency. On July 21, 1930, Hoover signed an executive order creating the Veterans Administration.
The suffering of World War I veterans helped assure that World War II veterans would become the first generation to be offered prompt and comprehensive benefits. This was the first GI Bill of Rights, covering medical care, education, home ownership and even temporary support while seeking employment.
The GI Bill, especially in breaking down historical barriers to higher education, changed the United States forever. The new commitment to veterans became law in 1944, but it was not until 1959 that the VA would adopt a motto that described a standard of conduct veterans would allegedly have a right to demand. The VA motto came from one of the finest speeches ever given by a president, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Pretty words alone, however, don’t heal broken soldiers.
Excellent Care If You Can Get It
Veterans of WWI — what they called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars” until WWII came along — got $60 and a train ticket home. After much agitation, that was supplemented by the Bonus Act, but Congress put off the expense of actually paying the bonuses until 1945, not anticipating the country would be back at war in 1941.
The violence in the streets against the Bonus Army from WWI was so recent when WWII began and the need for military service was so great, smart politics called for more attention to the needs of veterans. WWII service came with new expectations about how returning warriors would be treated and the politicians who got bloody noses from the WWI vets were mostly still in charge.
Still, the WWII GI Bill was controversial on the grounds of cost and of moral hazard. Opponents feared that the taxpaying “makers” would be bankrupted by a new class of “takers.” Moral hazard was the point made by the chair of the House Committee for Veterans Affairs, John Rankin (D-Mississippi) when he remarked during discussion of the GI Bill, “the bane of the British Empire has been the dole system.”
The WWII GI Bill passed over both objections. Instead of bankruptcy, the country began a period of unprecedented prosperity. Instead of creating a class of bums, the middle class expanded by the GI Bill became the primary engine of that prosperity.
GI loans drove postwar demand for housing, creating construction, financing and sales jobs. GI education raised the skill levels and therefore the wages of an entire generation. These outcomes balanced out the substantial costs to the taxpayers by creating more taxpayers in higher tax brackets than had existed before the war.
The 16 million men and women who served active duty in WWII were a larger portion of those eligible for military service by age and health than we’ve pressed into service before or since. The timing of the enlistments was as important to planning for veterans as the number of enlistments. Just about everybody was in uniform “for the duration.”
The upside to the duration hitch was the motivational saying, “the way home is through Berlin (or Tokyo).” The downside was so many people hitting the civilian economy and becoming eligible for GI Bill benefits at the same time, perhaps overwhelming the fragile new system. As it happened, the predicted flood of newly discharged GIs hit colleges and the housing market that had been moribund during the war harder than it hit the treasury.
The most fearsome benefit in the GI Bill to the budget hawks, the one most like “the dole,” was the controversial 52–20 clause, offering $20 a week (about $280 in today’s dollars) for a year to vets seeking work. The cost turned out to be trivial rather than a budget-buster. Less than 20 percent of the funds set aside for 52–20 were ever paid out because most returning GIs found work right away or took advantage of education benefits.
VA medical care also took leaps forward after WWII. With the numbers of eligible men at an all-time high, as well as more women veterans than ever before, the VA was off on an expansion that has never stopped and seldom paused.
When the first head of the VA resigned in 1945, the man picked to navigate the major changes in store was Gen. Omar Bradley, hero of the North African campaign and commander of most of the American ground forces in the final push from Normandy to Berlin. Bradley’s appointment signaled that the VA would be a serious post-war priority.
Bradley recruited Gen. Paul Hawley, chief surgeon for the European Theater, to form the VA Department of Medicine. Hawley got more bang for taxpayers’ bucks by matching VA hospitals with medical schools. The hospitals got the services of interns and the medical schools got a set of research subjects that could not be duplicated in the civilian world.
Bradley’s first report on the Department of Medicine described 97 VA hospitals on line with 25 more under construction and major additions to 11 more. All that amounted to a bit over 100,000 beds to serve a tsunami of 15 million veterans coming home from Europe and the Pacific as the armed forces dialed back to occupation duty.
All beds were full in no time and both the Army and the Navy had to share available beds with the VA while the building of new VA hospitals and the expansion of existing ones continued. The population to be served was the greatest number of returning veterans in U.S. history, but the degree of difficulty was further ramped up by the fact that they all showed up at once.
The wave of wounded warriors from WWII was a major shock to the new medical system. Since the system was built out to accommodate the end of WWII, injured veterans have entered into the system from battles in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to the devastating physical trauma military doctors have always seen, there have been modern hazards like Agent Orange exposure from Operation Ranch Hand in Vietnam and Gulf War Syndrome from breathing the chemicals released when Saddam Hussein torched oil fields. The constant recycling into combat zones since 2001 has ramped up what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), formerly known as soldier’s heart, shell shock, and battle fatigue.
About the time the first Gulf War veterans were hitting the VA system (1997), Congress got one of the few straight up comparisons of the cost of federal medical programs ever done. Medicare was spending $5,450 per patient, but Medicare served the elderly. The VA was spending $4,798. By comparison, the Indian Health Service was a cheap date at $1,578.
Patient satisfaction can only be measured after people get into the system, and that has been the rub for the VA. While any veteran can report to a VA hospital, patients are classified by disabilities received in the line of duty. The degree of disability not only defines a place in line but also how much of the cost the veteran has to pay, if any.
The scandal of how long the VA was taking to make disability determinations began to break in 2012 and intensified in the light shined by a new vets organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. That average processing time was 262 days, which was then a 20 year high.
Republican Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed in the September 16, 2015 GOP debate that 307,000 veterans “died waiting for health care.” The Washington Post rated that statement “two Pinocchios,” because there is no way to draw that conclusion from the VA Inspector General report she cited. Because others made the same mistake, they spared her three Pinocchios, but the 307,000 number represents the number of records coded “pending” in the VA database but coded as deceased in the Social Security database.
The VA database includes veterans who died before the beginning of the enrollment system in 1998, and veterans who never applied for anything, and persons who are not veterans at all. The Post characterized it as a “contact list.” The misunderstanding of the IG report does point out a reason for delay in processing disability claims. Until very recently, all the paper was moved by hand, as if the computer revolution never happened in the VA.
A similar but separate scandal originated in the Phoenix VA in 2014, this time involving veterans who were already enrolled in the system but were unreasonably delayed in seeing a doctor. The delay was bad enough, but, worse, the wait times were falsified to make delays appear shorter. Deaths while awaiting care were an issue, and a CNN report in April of 2014 claimed at least 40 veterans had died in Phoenix alone.
The VA had established a goal of getting veterans in non-emergency cases to a doctor within 30 days back in 1995. In spite of reports that goal was not being met, the VA shortened it to 14 days in 2011. Two VA doctors have expressed what they thought of shortening an unmet deadline in extremely colorful language that, unfortunately, they will not allow me to repeat.
The reason for the delay was lack of enough doctors and nurses in light of the aging of Vietnam veterans and the growing flow of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans into the system. The delay had reason. Lying about the delay did not.
The manipulation of wait time data first discovered in Phoenix was found in many VA hospitals across the country. The number of veterans who lost their lives as a result has been argued ever since but nobody can claim that number to be zero.
As a result of the wait time scandal, Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former General Eric Shinseki lost his job. By all accounts, Shinseki was a “soldier’s general,” whose heart was in the right place, but he was handicapped by thinking that just because he gave an order it would be obeyed.
President Obama replaced Shinseki with Army veteran and former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald. The thinking was that the problems in the VA were management problems that called for the skills associated with business.
While the management shakeup was going on, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 was making its way through Congress with the bipartisan team of Independent member of the Democratic Caucus Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona as sponsors.
President Obama signed the bill into law on August 7, 2014. It added $16 billion to the VA budget with $10 billion to get civilian care for veterans on the wait-list and $6 billion to hire more doctors and nurses. It also gave the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the power to fire people that had inexplicably not existed before.
Three months later, the person in charge of the Phoenix facility that kicked off the scandal was finally fired. It did the VA image no good when it came out that she had been paid over $90,000 while on administrative leave following the scandal. Other high level administrators were fired in Alabama, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, as well as at VA headquarters. The total of eight people fired almost certainly is less than the number of veterans who lost their lives over either the treatment delays or the cover-ups that prevented fixing the treatment delays.
The wait times for both disability determinations and doctor appointments have diminished substantially since the heads rolled and they continue to move in the right direction, although there is some complaint that moving the backlog in medical care has expanded the backlog in other VA programs.
VA hospitals continue to train medical students and to lead research into traumatic brain injury and the design of prosthetic devices. Care for women veterans continues to improve. Treatment for PTSD remains inadequate, but not for lack of attention.
Rise of the Chicken Hawks
The World War II generation shook up the old idea that only the upper class went to college. Indian, Hispanic and African-American veterans became plaintiffs in lawsuits to open up the right to vote. Women, having violated traditional sex roles to keep the economy going on the home front, were disinclined to surrender their new status.
The NAACP had put the civil rights movement on hold for the duration of WWII except for demanding access to all jobs in the military. The GI Bill quickly overwhelmed historically black colleges, and a series of lawsuits was begun that, over time, integrated professional schools, graduate schools and colleges. NAACP litigation finally culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the beginning of the end of segregation by law, although segregation by custom and as a side effect of segregation by class remains to this day.
Discrimination was not ended by the WWII GI Bill. What ended was the willingness of non-whites to suffer quietly. Litigation was slow and changes incremental.
By 1946, New York and parts of bordering New Jersey recorded over 67,000 zero down payment home loans guaranteed by the GI Bill. Less than 100 went to non-white veterans. In the same year, the University of Pennsylvania — thought to be the least discriminatory school in the Ivy League — enrolled all of 46 black students in a student body of 9,000.
Change was slow and painful and came mostly in the courts through the ’50s, but when the children of the WWII generation decided in the ’60s and the ’70s it was time for direct action, they were building on the education and experience and — yes — the courage of their elders.
After WWII, the threat of nuclear annihilation confined wars between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to proxy wars in former colonial states. These are the wars the baby boom generation grew into, and they lacked the moral clarity and near unanimous support of WWII. So did the veterans.
The makeup of the veteran population has changed since WWII.
Through the Vietnam War, the numbers of persons serving in the military were under two percent of the population, although much higher in Indian country. About 90 percent of Indian Vietnam vets were volunteers and over half served in combat.
A VA report in 2006, taking in Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, showed Indians still serving out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. Interestingly, Indians are overrepresented in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, but underrepresented in the Army and Air Force.
Six percent of veterans are women, a number that has climbed ever since WWII. Ten percent of Indian veterans are women.
When the U.S. went to an all-volunteer military after Vietnam, the number of persons serving dropped to under one percent of the general population and the number of Indians serving dropped as well because of a more rigid requirement of a high school diploma. According to the VA, educational attainments of newer Indian veterans look more like the general population than in previous generations.
With fewer people serving in the military, fewer veterans are being elected to Congress, where responsibility for VA funding starts. Congress also has the constitutional authority to declare war, an authority that has fallen into disuse since WWII.
In the years after WWII, over half of the people serving in Congress were veterans. While it seemed like everybody did military service in what we now call the Good War, in fact it was just under 10 percent. Twice that among American Indians. The number of veterans in the population dropped rapidly in the Cold War years, but their numbers in Congress continued to grow, peaking at about three quarters of Congress in 1971.
Since 1971, the numbers of veterans serving in Congress have been declining. They currently stand at about 20 percent veterans in a body charged with picking which wars to fight and what resources to devote to veterans afterwards.
The Vietnam War was highly controversial and when men of military age during Vietnam began to assume positions of power and authority, we saw the rise of the American chicken hawk. The chicken hawks supported the Vietnam War to the last drop of other people’s blood while they had — as one of them put it — “other priorities.” Or bone spurs.
Some voters are offended to see persons who opposed the Vietnam War, such as Bill Clinton, elected to high office, but more are offended by persons actively in favor of the war who could not be bothered to fight.
Willard Mitt Romney spoke out in favor of the war he didn’t fight and it was perhaps no surprise that none of his five sons found time to pull a hitch either.
George W. Bush was able to score a spot in the Air National Guard, where he was able to avoid the war and learn to wear a flight suit all at once.
In the 2016 election cycle, several chicken hawks were contesting to make the most bellicose noises in favor of sending other people to fight for their country. The only veterans in the entire field were Republicans Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jim Webb, and all of those candidates fell by the wayside early.
President Obama liked to brag that VA funding was at a historic high. That, in itself, is not terribly meaningful, because funding would be at a historic high because the amount of business is. More meaningful facts were that under Obama the VA budget rose 68 percent and the backlogs that were going up changed direction.
While VA funding is supposed to be exempt from the budget madness of sequestration — across the board cuts thought to be so idiotic they would force Congress to agree on targeted cuts — veterans still got hammered as sequestration forced federal, state, and local governments to cut payrolls. Those jobs normally carry veterans’ preferences, and the downside to those preferences is that the middle-aged people being turned out are disproportionately veterans. Wal-Mart can only hire so many greeters.
Veteran unemployment is at an all-time low as the economic recovery continued under Trump, but it’s hard not to see the political impact of the rise of the chicken hawks in the perverse history of Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Virginia) update of the GI Bill.
Webb, a Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran and father of a Marine, introduced the new GI Bill on the day after he was sworn in. It quickly drew public opposition from President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. Their concern was that richer education benefits would harm retention rates.
The Congressional Budget Office scoring predicted that the new GI Bill might decrease retention but it would increase recruitments by similar numbers.
Still, Bush threatened a veto and McCain did his best to bury it in committee, which is a time-honored way to kill a bill without anybody having to go on the record opposed.
Bush finally agreed to sign it in a package deal to continue funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars outside the normal budget process for 2008. McCain did not come off the campaign trail to vote for the compromise; Barack Obama did.
Obama attacked McCain for turning veterans’ education into a partisan issue. McCain responded by noting that Obama “did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform.” While most of the politicians obstructing Jim Webb’s bill were chicken hawks, Sen. McCain can never be tarred with that brush.
Still, it was a bit much when President Bush invited McCain to the signing ceremony as if it were McCain’s work product rather than something Webb had to do the heavy lifting to accomplish.
Looking back, most observers would agree that the fight over military retention was really the same fight as the original GI Bill. It was all about the money.
For Webb, the new GI Bill was a major reason he wanted to be in the Senate, but the other was ending the Iraq War, something he was not able to accomplish. Webb is not exactly a pacifist, having returned from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. Having done what he felt he could do, he did not stand for reelection.
The combination of chicken hawks and budget hawks is potentially deadly for veterans. Before Obama was elected, the immediate costs of war were off budget. The costs of caring for veterans could not be moved off budget because of all the infrastructure to be supported. So budget hawks were always lurking around VA expenditures.
Rumbling underneath all the challenges veterans face — homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, suicide — is the social experiment the U.S. is running on the one percent who choose to defend the country. How much PTSD is generated by deploying to a combat zone every other year indefinitely? PTSD cases overrun the VA treatment efforts now.
Will the incidence of PTSD continue to grow? Will the symptoms decline over time without treatment? What kinds of treatments are most effective?
We don’t really know the answers to any of these questions. As long as only one percent of the population serves but we keep extending old wars and starting new ones, this social experiment moves forward into unknown territory.
It would be ironic if veterans survived multiple deployments to combat zones and then fell victim to the budget priorities of the chicken hawks who sent them.
This post was previously published on www.medium.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
Photo credit: Steve Russell