Letter from an Army vet

A disabled Vietnam-era vet visits a Minneapolis V.A. hospital and discovers that many fellow vets oppose the Bush administration's war in Iraq.

Published December 5, 2003 10:23PM (EST)

I received a letter from the V.A. Administration about a month ago to report on Nov. 24 at 2:20 p.m. for a doctor's appointment. The "waiting list" for DAVs [disabled American veterans] has taken up to three years to secure a primary physician in the new V.A. Medical Center in Minneapolis, but as the result of private grants, some federal funding and some volunteers, they have imported a few dozen doctors and medical assistants to alleviate this problem.

As I was waiting in the general call area, where you wait as they determine which doctor you will see first, which test to be given, etc., I was with approximately 100-125 other veterans. This was a diverse group ranging from very elderly men in wheelchairs on oxygen and with assistance, to recently returned soldiers from Iraq.

The new facility has much more room and better accommodations than the old facility at Fort Snelling. We had comfortable chairs, and TVs were stationed overhead for everyone to see and hear if they chose to. During my wait, our president, George W. Bush, appeared on the TV for a news conference. It became readily apparent that President Bush was speaking to a large group (apparently) of soldiers from Fort Carson, Colo., and astonishingly to me at least, he was once again wearing a military uniform!

For those that know me it is no surprise and to those that don't know me, I am no "fan" of President (Shrub) Bush. I want to make this clear so there are no accusations of misrepresentation, and this is primarily why I remained silent as this speech by Bush continued on. Something phenomenal was happening: At each "central table," where the controls and speakers for the television sets are contained in the remote controls so as not to disturb others, the channels all went to his "speech/send-off" and the volume was turned up to the point that even the most hearing impaired were being moved to hear what was going on.

Then it started. First, a veteran around 50 years old in my area said, "I can't believe he has the guts to wear that uniform!" Others around the room started making remarks like, "Count the lies!" and "Didn't he learn anything on that aircraft carrier?" I'll clean up the language, but not long into Shrub's obvious photo op there were so many men and a few women veterans either yelling at each other or at the TV that staff members came in thinking someone had a serious health issue, or that perhaps an unstable patient had gone into a rage.

Uniformly and, as best as I could decipher, almost all the men in that room were either angry, disgusted, frustrated or simply insulted. I have held the belief that retired military are abundantly GOP supporters, so I simply couldn't contain myself anymore. I am, admittedly, an activist and advocate for labor rights and whom they support. Clearly Mr. Bush is not in that crowd so I rose and walked to the middle area and asked if I could have everyone's attention. I explained my background, my current status both in the civilian world and as a DAV, and said that I wasn't registered with any political party and that I considered myself independent in order to support candidates that represent my interests and concerns the best.

Surprisingly all but one of the televisions was turned off and we ended up having a town hall sort of meeting. Occasionally someone would get called for his or her appointment and, astonishingly to me, a couple of guys passed their time to the next number as they had things to get off their chests. In brief, out of approximately 100 men that were participating we did hand votes and spoke. The highest-ranking veteran was a "bird" colonel from Silver Bay, and there were 13 commissioned officers, 7 WWII, 14 Korea, 3 Iraq and the rest were, presumably, Vietnam. One after another, veterans spoke of how frustrating it was to have once felt proud and to now watch our group being leached of promised benefits and assistance. The WWII veteran from Owatonna spoke eloquently of marching in over 50 parades with his Legion/VFW Honor Squad with pride, and how he felt no such pride today as he viewed the young men behind the "Joke," as he put it, that was speaking on the TV.

I did ask how many in the room supported the effort in Iraq: It was a little over half until Greg stood up and said, "Terry, loaded question! What part of the effort do you mean? Should we have gone? Are we there for military reasons or an alternative reason?" He stated he was sure that everyone in the room supported the troops, and would I rephrase my question. At that point I admitted I had a bumper sticker on my vehicle that stated "We Support the Troops" in bold letters and then below in smaller letters "But NOT the unelected residents of the White House!" The room went crazy! Greg reestablished some order and asked how many felt my bumper sticker represented how they felt last winter prior to invading Iraq. Counting me there were only nine of us.

Greg then asked, "How many feel the way the bumper sticker reads today?" We had to explain the question over again to a few of the more disabled or elderly veterans and then he asked for a show of hands. Amazingly, I observed even the staff members at the counter with their hands up! If there were more than a just a few in the room who didn't have their hands shown, I don't know where they were.

I then asked, "In order to be fair and considering that the news conference had probably inflamed some, would anyone care to speak, without interruption or argument, in support of the minority in the room?" After another request and an awkward moment passed, a man standing by one of the wheelchair-bound veterans raised his hand. His name was Joseph, from Eden Prairie, and he worked as a volunteer driving vets to their appointments at various places in the metro area. He was hesitant to speak, saying he "wasn't a patient, wasn't disabled, but was a veteran." We asked him to speak up. Joseph explained he had been a lifelong Republican and had voted straight ticket for over two decades. He admired Reagan and thought highly of Bush I, and was disgusted when the late Sen. Wellstone opposed the invasion of Iraq. He felt G.W. Bush was "a decent man, with good intentions" and that he sincerely felt Bush felt terribly about the casualties in Iraq. But he said, "We must respond to 9/11 somehow!" The room went silent, some started to mutter about oil, money, etc., until they were reminded of our agreement not to interrupt or be hostile to a speaker from the minority. I admire Joseph for the courage it took to speak up in an obviously uncomfortable situation.

Later, when I reached my appointment up on 4E and met my doctor, I was amazed to hear that even he was aware of what had taken place! I will not expound on what he said other than he went to school in Texas, medical school in Northern California, and residency in Massachusetts and was being hired, after this temp assignment, to Dallas again. He stated, "I would be very hard put to find a supporter of the Bush administration on the staff," and that it was "sad" how those were either "uninformed, blatantly biased by the media, or simply refused to believe what was so obvious" in their continued attacks on liberals and support of "men being maimed for profit!"

Interesting day, thought I would share it with you. If you are tempted to believe the "military in support of Bush" propaganda, I suggest you visit your nearest V.A. medical center. People that have "been there, done that" or treat the injuries incurred by those that served aren't being fooled one bit as far as I observed. A tremendous erosion of support for this administration is well underway among that group.

-- Terry Dobbelaere

By Salon Staff

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