Before you’re a veteran, you’re a soldier, sailor, airman or marine. It starts back then . . . or at least it did when I was in the Army. You think these days vets are forgotten, mistreated by the system, used as a political football in a game in which they’re not invited to play? You should have been around when I served.
I had a friend from Philadelphia, a guy from the streets of South Philly who’d seen his fair share of ugliness by the time he was drafted at age 18. He was figuring: "I’ve been in some fights, I’ve known a few guys who had the misfortune of getting on the wrong side of the wrong guy and taking a beating, even a couple who got stabbed, so this Army shit? Bring it on." He recalled basic training at some hellhole down in the South, so hot it melted the asphalt streets between the barracks, everybody was sweating on top of the sheets at night in the platoon bays in the old World War II era wooden barracks, the asshole drill sergeants screaming at the top of their lungs, the recruits doing so many push-ups they lose count. Almost everybody was a draftee, they didn't want to be there, but there’s nothing they can do but gut it out. And then one of the sergeants started in on a black guy in the platoon, calling him every racist expletive you can think of, making him do all the predictable shit like clean toilets with a toothbrush, just hammering away on him and not letting up.
He remembers it like this: The black guy hangs in there, he endures with unnerving stoicism, never talks back at the drill sergeant, just sucks it up and takes it. The drill sergeant gets madder and madder as basic training wears on. He’s out to break the black guy, and there’s no one around to stop him. Finally one day he singles out the black guy and makes him run around a track near the barracks carrying his nine pound M14 rifle.
Nine pounds doesn’t sound like much, but at midday in the South in the middle of the summer under a punishing sun, a nine pound rifle is heavier than anything you’ve ever lifted. The sergeant makes the guy run lap after lap. No rest. No water. Just lap after lap after lap. Finally the guy drops. The sergeant tries to get him up. He’s out. After a while, he gets a couple of guys from the barracks to carry him inside, one of whom is my friend. The guy is unresponsive. My friend tells the sergeant he needs an ambulance. The sergeant tells him to shut up and mind his own business. The guy is just lying there on his bunk in his uniform. He’s dead. The heat killed him.
The Army covers it up. A “training accident.” He had a “heart condition.” Everybody knows the what really happened. The sergeant threatens them. He’ll do the same thing to anybody who talks, and he’ll get away with it, just like he did this time. My friend says fuck this and takes a shot at the sergeant, knocks him out. They give him a quick court martial for assaulting a superior, he spends a few months in the stockade and takes a bad discharge. One guy dead. One guy with a DD 214 that will lose him any legitimate job he ever applies for. At least he didn’t get sent to Vietnam, he tells me several years later.
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I had several guys in my platoon at Fort Carson, Colorado in 1969 and 1970 who had been to Vietnam and came home with Purple Hearts and enough damage done to their bodies — not counting the PTSD they were probably suffering from that wasn’t even being diagnosed at the time — to qualify for disability pay when they mustered out.
One guy had so much shrapnel in him, the doctor who patched him up overseas told him he’d qualify for a 75 percent disability when he got out. They went to their discharge medical exams and were pushed through in a matter of minutes and sent home with pay for whatever leave time they had accumulated and no disability. When one of them came back to the barracks and told me what had happened, I went to the discharge medical exam with the next guy up for discharge. Same thing. When I told the major in charge what was going on, he actually told me it was policy. Push ‘em through. The Army couldn’t afford it if they had to pay disability to every guy who qualified. I reported to my battalion commander. Go back down to your platoon and mind your own business, he told me. But these guys are my business, I protested. Not any more they’re not, he said. They’re not soldiers anymore.
He was correct. They weren’t soldiers. They were veterans.
This country has made gigantic strides since the godforsaken days of the Vietnam war. I haven’t seen any evidence that there is systematic denial of veterans’ disability benefits. In fact, pressure from veterans groups and sympathetic members of congress have ensured that vets suffering from PTSD are afforded the same treatment by the VA as vets with physical disabilities. But if you think I was implying that there are members of congress who are unsympathetic to veterans, I was.
A bill drafted by Congressman Phil Roe (a Republican from Tennessee), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would actually start charging veterans for GI Bill education benefits by imposing a $2,400 tax on their income while they’re in the service. The so called “health care” plan currently being considered by the Senate would bar veterans eligible for VA benefits from receiving tax credits to buy health insurance on individual markets. Another provision in the Republican plan to dismantle the Affordable Care Act would end a program providing matching funds to help provide home care for people with dementia, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and other disabling diseases. The Paralyzed Veterans of America is opposing the Republican plan because veterans who don’t have disabilities that are service connected wouldn’t be eligible for care in veterans homes and could end up being denied care altogether under the Republican plan.
But I’m sick and tired of getting my leg wet pissing in the wind about the outrages of the Republican plan to replace Obamacare with the Bataan Death March. Veterans are only one class whose health care is targeted by their diabolical plan, and it’s a diminishing one. According to the VA, only one half of one percent of the American population is on active duty serving in the military, and only 7.3 percent overall have ever served. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent figures, which are from 2011, 77 percent of Americans over 50 have had a family member who served in the military, while the same is true of only 33 percent of those between 18 and 29. Veterans, in other words, are a species of American while not extinct, are certainly on the endangered list.
There are several reasons for this. We have a much smaller military today than we used to, and fewer soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines produce fewer veterans. In January of this year, we had 1.4 million Americans in uniform, while in 1969, there were about 3.5 million. Back then, we had the draft to fill the ranks with a much broader cross section of citizens. Today, the volunteer military self-selects from a population that is far more rural, southern, and politically conservative.
You’d think with the political complexion of the congress and the current occupant of the White House that this would make for a climate far more hospitable to vets, but you’d be wrong. In 2012, Senate Republicans blocked a total of seven bills passed by the House that would have benefited veterans. In 2014, Senate Republicans by a vote of 56 to 41, blocked a bill supported by nearly all veterans groups that would have greatly expanded veterans’ health care, education benefits, and aid to disabled vets. In 2015, the Senate cut $857 million from programs benefitting veterans in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill. In 2016, the Senate voted against a bill that would have given veterans preference in federal hiring. The list of congressional outrages when it comes to veterans is much, much longer, but you get the picture. A diminishing number of veterans has yielded diminishing political power. I guess it has come to this: those who volunteered to serve our country and risk their lives in its defense are thought of as if they’re just one more interest group with their hands out.
But perhaps no group of service members or veterans has less political power than the non-citizens who have volunteered to serve in our military. This isn’t even their country, and yet they sign up by the thousands. Currently, more than 25,000 non-citizens are in uniform, and about 5,000 volunteer every year. Under a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, (MAVNI), non-citizens with mission critical skills such as expertise in foreign languages like Arabic, Pashto, Russian, and Chinese have been recruited since 2009 to serve in the military and are eligible for an accelerated path to citizenship. Currently, there are about 10,000 in the program, but NPR reported last week that Defense Secretary Mattis is considering a move to back out of the program, a move that will cancel about 1,000 enlistment contracts, leaving the non-citizens vulnerable to deportation. And there are no veterans groups speaking up for them.
According to a book by J. Malcolm Garcia to be published in September, “Without a Country: The Untold Story of America’s Deported Veterans,” those serving in the MAVNI program aren’t the only ones suffering under the immigration policies of the Trump administration. Under a 1996 law signed by President Bill Clinton, veterans who are non-citizens who commit a felony – even a minor offense like possession of marijuana – are being deported every day. “These are people who have in many cases been here since they were infants,” said Garcia in an interview this week.
“They swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution as soldiers, just like congressmen and senators do, just like Secretary Mattis did. Most of them have served overseas in our wars. How are they not one of us? They’re fighting for our flag, not Mexico’s, or Pakistan’s, or Iraq’s. When the get killed, they’re hailed as heroes, and they have the same right every other veteran does to a full military funeral and burial in a federal military cemetery." Garcia continued. "But while they can be shipped back to the United States in a coffin and buried here, they can’t live here under the 1996 law if they commit even a minor offense. When they go to a deportation hearing, their military service can’t be considered."
The thing that truly separates military veterans from everyone else, however, is war. They fought our wars so we didn’t have to, and many of them died doing it. In 1945 my grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., returned to the village of Nettuno, near the beachhead where he had commanded the VI Corps in its breakout from Anzio and the taking of Rome. He was there to consecrate the Cemetery. Bill Mauldin, the GI cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons for Stars and Strips throughout the war and who served under grandpa in the Fifth Army, was there to record the scene, which he reported in his 1971 memoir, “The Brass Ring”:
"There were about twenty thousand American graves. Families hadn't started digging up the bodies and bringing them home. Before the stand were spectator benches, with a number of camp chairs down front for VIPs, including several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. When Truscott spoke he turned away from the visitors and addressed himself to the corpses he had commanded here. It was the most moving gesture I ever saw. It came from a hard-boiled old man who was incapable of planned dramatics," Mauldin wrote.
"The general's remarks were brief and extemporaneous. He apologized to the dead men for their presence here. He said everybody tells leaders it is not their fault that men get killed in war, but that every leader knows in his heart this is not altogether true. He said he hoped anybody here through any mistake of his would forgive him, but he realized that was asking a hell of a lot under the circumstances . . . he would not speak about the glorious dead because he didn't see much glory in getting killed if you were in your late teens or early twenties. He promised that if in the future he ran into anybody, especially old men, who thought death in battle was glorious, he would straighten them out. He said he thought that was the least he could do."
My father told me grandpa did just that in 1951, on the night before dad left to fight in Korea. They were standing in the backyard of my grandparents’ farm in Loudon County, Virginia, leaning on a split rail fence after dinner. Dad asked grandpa what he could expect when he went to war in Korea. They had never talked about the war during the five years since grandpa had returned from Europe in 1946, so he didn’t know what to expect. Grandpa looked across a field in the dark and broke down crying. Dad said he had never before seen his father cry. “All those young boys. All those dead young boys,” he sobbed. “All those dead bodies. I just keep seeing all those dead bodies.”
Please stop thanking us for our service. Please start remembering all those dead bodies, and all the veterans still living as well.