NEW YORK--Americans were dismayed to learn that soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq--"fallen heroes," as network news calls them--were being warehoused in Building 18, a rat- and roach-infested satellite of the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center.
Disbelief turned to disgust with the disclosure that injured veterans are going bankrupt and losing their homes because the department of Veterans Affairs (VA) holds up their benefit checks for years on end. Surely the men and women who fight for our country deserve better. How could such a wholesale betrayal be tolerated by a nation where "support our troops" magnets account for 20 percent-plus of total auto body surface area?
The surprise is that anyone is surprised. Every generation of warriors has marched off to war based on the pledge that they would be taken care of no matter what. America has broken that promise every time. Abandoning men who lose their limbs and sanity in battle is a tradition that goes back to America's first war.
More than 40 years passed before Revolutionary War vets got their pensions--by which time most had died. Of the few survivors, only those who could prove they were indigent actually collected.
At the end of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers received a $250 discharge bonus, a modest sum that didn't last long due to a postwar period of high unemployment. By 1868, New York Gov. Reuben E. Fenton remarked that homeless veterans in New York State were "numbered by the thousands."
More than 300,000 soldiers were wounded in combat during World War I, but the Veterans Bureau, predecessor of the VA, rejected all but 47,000 claims. "The Veterans Bureau," a columnist wrote in 1925, "has probably made wrecks of more men since the war than the war itself took in dead and maimed."
America's first major military defeat led to mistreatment of those who had served in the Korean War by those who said they hadn't fought hard enough. Among other indignities, P.O.W.'s were denied their back pay of $2.50 for each day of captivity. Thousands of Vietnam vets were discarded like used tissues, reduced to homelessness and starvation after being denied adequate medical treatment and cash benefits. As recently as 2004, according to the Christian Science Monitor, "an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless at some time during 2004 [but] the VA had the resources to tend to only 100,000 of them." It took a decade after the fall of Hanoi before Vietnam vets began turning up on the streets, but troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have already become homeless. "This kind of inner city, urban guerrilla warfare that these veterans are facing probably accelerates mental-health problems," says Yogin Ricardo Singh, director of a veterans advocacy program in Brooklyn. "You can have all of the yellow ribbons on cars that say 'Support Our Troops' that you want," adds Linda Boone of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "But it's when they take off the uniform and transition back to civilian life that they need support the most." As usual, they're not getting it.
Two decades ago, as now, outrage generated by media reports forced Congressional blowhards and Army brass to promise to do better. But nothing changed. As it always does, the journalistic pack moved on to other stories. Politicians, slacking off as public pressure eased, went back to slashing the VA budget and brushing off veterans who complained of physical and mental disabilities brought on by their service. At this writing, the Bush Administration has asked Congress to slash veterans' benefits by a net 7 percent. A staggering 30 percent of the 700,000 soldiers who served in the 1991 Gulf War have filed claims with the American Legion stating that they are afflicted by Gulf War Syndrome, an umbrella term covering an array of illnesses ranging from chronic fatigue and loss of muscle control to brain cancer and fibromyalgia. Congress paid benefits only to vets who'd become ill within two years of 1991--eliminating 95 percent of applicants from eligibility.
Researchers suggest a myriad of possible causes for Gulf War Syndrome--exposure to Iraqi nerve gas and burning oil wells, infectious diseases spread by parasites, a mandatory anti-anthrax vaccine--but the smart money is on exposure to radiation released by the 286 tons of depleted uranium munitions fired by the United States in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. Twice as dense as lead, 60 percent as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium and with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, depleted uranium is extremely toxic. Reduced to a fine airborne powder, it coated everything in the Gulf: tanks and other equipment, uniforms, lungs.
Sixteen years later, the government has yet to take its stricken Gulf War vets seriously. "I've been working on this since '93, and I've just given up hope," said Dan Fahey, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a Gulf War vet who has become a spokesman for the victims. "I've spoken to successive federal committees and elected officials ... who then side with the Pentagon. Nothing changes."
Now get ready for Iraq War Syndrome. The 130 tons of depleted uranium dropped on Iraq in the Second Gulf War are destroying men like Herbert Reed, who ingested the substance in Samawah in July 2003. "Since he left a bombed-out train depot in Iraq," reported Wired last year, "his gums bleed. There is more blood in his urine, and still more in his stool. Bright light hurts his eyes. A tumor has been removed from his thyroid. Rashes erupt everywhere, itching so badly they seem to live inside his skin. Migraines cleave his skull. His joints ache, grating like door hinges in need of oil." Yet the Pentagon still refuses to clean up its act. Veterans poisoned by depleted uranium haven't received a dime in compensation. Depleted uranium bombs are still being dropped on Afghan villages. "There is something massively wrong with Herbert Reed, though no one is sure what it is," continues the Wired story. "He believes he knows the cause, but he cannot convince anyone caring for him that the military's new favorite weapon has made him terrifyingly sick."
"The Department of Defense takes the position that you can eat depleted uranium for breakfast and it poses no threat at all," says Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
Once again, politicians and their media mouthpieces will make big promises. But they'll break them. They always do.
Don't Americans who risk their lives to serve in the military deserve the same consideration as those who smoke cigarettes? Military propaganda--television commercials, posters, video games, recruitment offices, Fox News--ought to be plastered with a large, bold-faced notice: WARNING--Military Service Causes Death, Mutilation, Poverty, Homelessness and Complicated Feelings of Having Been Suckered.