The Overlooked Aftermath of America’s Wars
Suffering of U.S. veterans
By TK Prather
You served 16 years in the military, three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. You were part of the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, responsible for the Oruzgan Province. You fought masked terrorists and helped secure freedom for your country. Ever since you were a boy, you have dreamed of fighting in a war, of shooting down the “bad guys”. Now you have completed that dream. You are a proud veteran of the United States Army, and your hat spells it out in bold letters for anyone to see. You take a breath of the congested air that accumulates at the edge of a backed up onramp in San Francisco. The slogan from the dirty, changeless McDonalds cup in your outstretched hand mocks you. Blank faces ignore you through their car’s glass, but you can see their eyes judge your unshaven beard and unwashed clothes. You sigh as you glance down at the piece of cardboard and sharpie by the plastic crate you sit on. It was supposed to say “U.S. veteran, anything helps”. On your metal leg lies your right hand, too shaky to write. This is a horrible way to live, but it is a reality for many veterans in America. There are 529k and 849k homeless veterans depending on time of year (Stuart). This topic is an important issue because people who are willing to serve and die for our country should be taken care of after they are discharged. My paternal grandfather served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. He served from 1956 to 1977, and was key in the development of missile guidance systems, many of which are still used today.
My maternal grandfather was also involved in the military. He was part of the Army Reserves. In addition to my two grandfathers, my great grandfather also served in the military. He was part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment in World War II. The 442nd was a regiment made up of Japanese-American soldiers. It became the most decorated unit in US history for its size and length of service. Due to many of my family members being involved with the military, I have a strong connection to it. My paternal grandfather receives medical care from Veterans Affairs and buys much of his food from commissaries. He depends heavily on these government provided resources. Although my grandfather is in a good situation, I have seen individuals and families that do not appear as well off when I go with him to both places. Common themes are dirt covered clothes, uncut hair, and a disgruntled walk. I admit I was prejudiced when I assumed that these disheveled looking people’s quality of life was worse than most, but still, I wondered how many veterans were in these kinds of situations. Through preliminary research, I found a number of shocking statistics. There are 21.2 million veterans in the U.S, fewer than half are employed, and each day twenty commit suicide (Stuart, Marko). Veterans make up one third of the homeless population and annually, 120 thousand veterans are left waiting or never receive medical care (Stuart). It seems crazy to me that people who give their lives to serve their country are not well-cared for by the people of that country when their service is finished. Many of these veterans are impaired physically, mentally, or both, and the United States should provide each and every one of them resources to reintegrate to society and have the same opportunities as average citizens have. I know for certain that if my grandfather were in a poor living situation because of insufficient aid from the government, I would be infuriated. I do not believe that we must financially support all veterans for life, but we instead administer enough assistance to allow veterans to have equal opportunity as civilians. Overall, I am compelled to look into this subject because my family has roots in the military and I believe that it is the responsibility of the U.S. to make sure its veterans can live their lives well after their service.
To find the origin of the mistreatment of veterans in the U.S, we can look to the official beginning of this country: the Revolutionary War, the producer of the first ever U.S. Veterans. The Revolutionary War began when The U.S. declared itself an independent country in 1776. In class, we learned about the war for independence: how it was won and the impacts and aftermath of it. However, the situation of the Revolutionary War veterans is unknown to most. The members of the Continental Army were promised “land bounties and other rewards in enlisted contracts”(Mead). However, after the war’s end, almost all of the veterans received extremely little to no compensation or support for their service. The Articles of Confederation government was too weak to raise money to pay any debts, including military pay, and, some years later, Hamilton’s financial plan allowed bonds bought by speculators from veterans to be sold for huge profits (Mead). Even before the war ended, veterans were mistreated. In 1779, Military officers asking for Congress for a pension plan of some sort met public resistance (Mead). Veterans of the Revolutionary War were employed to gain independence, but unpaid for services rendered when they had done their duties. The way veterans
were treated after the Revolutionary War set a precedent for how veterans of future wars could be treated as well. The Revolutionary War is viewed as the largest success in U.S. history, as it is responsible for the existence of the U.S. Due to this enormous historical significance surrounding the war, the problems with the war itself are overlooked and ignored. The U.S. government did not compensate its soldiers, nor protect them from later debt. The unacceptable treatment of Revolutionary War veterans set an unfortunate precedent.
During the War of 1812, the first federal pension act was implemented. In 1818, It granted 96 dollars a year to any white male who served more than 9 months in the army (Mead). This may seem like a step in the right direction but the act excluded blacks, southern state veterans and Women(Mead). The U.S. felt freedom was enough reward for blacks and required an immense amount of proof of service, most of which southern state veterans and women did not have. To make matters worse, a year later, pension benefits were lessened for all veterans not in dire poverty (Mead). It took twenty years for a new pension act to be passed (Mead). It helped include more veterans by lowering standards of proof of service, but still excluded women and minorities (Mead).
Veterans Affairs improved slightly in the Civil War. Wives, widows, and children of Union soldiers were included in pension plans (Gorman). However, the monthly payout for a fully disabled veteran was a mere eight dollars (Gorman). Nearly 25 years later, in 1890, the Dependent Pension act was passed. This act extended the reach of pensions, covering over one million veterans by 1890 (Gorman). Unfortunately, the pension plan took up forty percent of federal revenue (Gorman). This birthed an anti-vet public sentiment, setting yet another precedent that negatively affects veterans and ultimately leading to President Grover Cleveland vetoing over 200 pension bills (Gorman). Veterans of the Union army were given medical treatment, which is called the “origin of veterans’ healthcare” by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (va.gov). This was only the situation for the Union soldiers. Veterans of the Confederate army received almost no compensation or health care. This was due to the Confederate soldiers not technically being in the U.S. army. The burden of compensation fell upon the Confederate states, but seeing as many of the states were economically distressed, little to no benefits were allotted to Confederate soldiers (Gorman, Mead).
World War One veterans were grossly mistreated as well. The war ended in 1918 and veterans’ reassimilation into society did not go smoothly (history.com). Veterans had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life and finding jobs. This was exacerbated when the Great Depression hit, leaving many veterans without wealth or health care (“The Bonus march”). Congress had assigned bonuses to veterans of World War One based on the number of days served. However, these bonuses were not paid until 1945 (“The Bonus March”). Veterans needed the money money desperately so they organized the largest march on Washington in history, at the time (“The Bonus March”) Of the 15,000 people who marched on Washington, 90% were World War One veterans and 20% were disabled in some way. The protests were so persistent that President Herbert Hoover sent in the army to quell the bonus marchers (history.com).
World War Two veterans were by far the most generously treated group of former service people. The effective aid of World War Two first began with a problem of large proportions. During World War Two, as a result of the wartime surge in manufacturing and job creation for the war, the unemployment rate dropped from 9.9% to 1.2% (Greengard). However, in 1945, with 15.7 million veterans returning back to the workforce, the U.S. Employment Service wrote that “55 to 60 million jobs must be provided if [the U.S. is] to have full employment after the war”(Greengard). To combat this pressing problem, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into action the Servicemen’s Readjustment act, also known as the GI Bill in 1944 (Greengard). The bill appropriated funds to build Veterans facilities, provide unemployment wages, pay portions of home and business loans, and pay portions of tuition fees for veterans (Greengard). The most impactful part of this bill was the education factor. Over half of World War Two Veterans, just over eight million, enrolled in schools or training using the GI Bill and in 1947, veterans made up 49% of college admissions (Greengard). According to J. Michael Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, “The GI Bill helped elevate the U.S. and provide the foundation for today’s knowledge-based economy. It also provided vocational and technical training that was greatly needed at the time. The return on investment has been felt many times over.” Veterans benefited greatly from this program. By 1965, the average veteran annual income was 159% that of the average civilian, and the unemployment rate of veterans was half of that of civilians (Greengard). Ten Million Veterans received benefits from the GI Bill. However, the GI Bill was not perfect. Many black veterans were limited in the benefits of the bill. Colleges were segregated and banks refused to give even government backed loans to any black soldier. Despite this, the GI Bill is still the most beneficial piece of legislation for veterans in the history of the U.S.
Sadly, after the phenomenal success of reintegrating WW2 veterans into society in the 1940s and 1950s, soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s had a completely different, demoralizing experience. When soldiers returned to the U.S., they were demonstrated against, spit on, and seen as perpetrators of a war many Americans were against (Valentine). They were the physical representation of the U.S.’ failure in Vietnam. The thick controversy surrounding that war added fuel to the fire as the veterans were caught in the middle of the political and social conflict between the anti-war segment of the public and the pro-war government, receiving aid from neither side (Valentine). To make matters worse, the number of disabled veterans returning from Vietnam was staggering. The new battlefield first aid technology allowed permanently wounded soldiers to be saved (“Military Tradition – History of Veterans Abused, Discarded.”). This, coupled with with new forms of chemical warfare, i.e. Agent Orange, created a large number of disabled veterans (“Military Tradition – History of Veterans Abused, Discarded.”). In addition to the tougher physical conditions, Vietnam War veterans suffered from extreme post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Out of 2.5 million Vietnam veterans, 700,000 experienced PTSD (Valentine). Veterans, on average, only received only 200 dollars month from pensions, leaving no doubt that the U.S.’support was inadequate (Valentine). After the war, veterans, many of whom had no education beyond high school, struggled to find work. Employers saw veterans as uneducated and unstable, in addition to the general public’s views on veterans (Cohen, Segal, Temme). Many veterans turned to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with the mental, physical, and financial burdens of the Vietnam war. The GI Bill of 1944 had offered veterans a leg up with education, but the limited benefits and controversy that consumed the veterans of the Vietnam War prevented their education or and employment (Cohen, Segal, Temme). The mistreatment of the Vietnam War veterans is reflected in statistics. Within ten years of the war’s end, 1975, 25% of veterans had been arrested (Valentine). 100,000 veterans had committed suicide, almost twice the number of deaths in the actual war (58,000). The contrast between the way World War Two and Vietnam War veterans were treated is extreme, the zenith and the nadir of veterans affairs.
Finally, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ situation is still developing as these are both ongoing conflicts. Currently, twenty percent of vets from these deployments suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, fewer than half are employed once stateside, and a third are homeless (Stuart). This is not ideal, especially with the advanced medical, psychological, and economic tools we have available to us today. Nonetheless, the government is taking steps to improve the affairs of these veterans. Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. has increased veteran education benefits, medical coverage, and reduced veteran homelessness by one third (Flournoy). Just this year, President Donald Trump signed into action a bill that extended the eligibility of education benefits from fifteen years to life (history.com). Still, only 41% of Iraq and Afghanistan Vets believe the government is meeting the needs of veterans (Flournoy). The story of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars’ veterans is not over, but so far, it shows only partial improvement of their treatment.
Mistreatment of veterans has been present throughout U.S. history. The Revolutionary War set a precedent that allowed similar mistakes to be made for centuries. Americans forget their veterans much too quickly: For most of them, the thrill of victory (or the relief of an end to hostilities) overshadows the fact that the war is not entirely over. There are still people who need to be taken care of. There is still another battle to fight. The U.S. veteran has been marginalized, discriminated against, underpaid, humiliated, brought up to glory and then shoved back down into the depths of poverty. The U.S. cannot mistreat the people who sacrifice their bodies, minds, and lives to protect us. It is morally wrong and dishonorable to use people to win a war, and leave them behind when they do their job. The mistreatment of veterans must come to an end.
Present Day Issues
Today, retirement from the military is good to some, adequate for others, and deadly to a few. The system that is designed to aid veterans is called the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA provides pensions, medical care, education and training tuition assistance, home loan assistance, transitional assistance, life insurance, and other services to veterans where applicable. The VA has had success in providing for many individuals, especially those unable to work once stateside. If one has an injury as a result of their military service, they are entitled to medical care and financial compensation depending on the degree of injury (va.gov). Almost all veterans are entitled to a form of medical care and education benefits for a limited time to assist with the transition back into civilian life (va.gov). The current problem with the VA lies within its internal workings. Its process is so slow, that it can lead to deaths of veterans, the very people it is meant to protect. This was exemplified in the Phoenix VA scandal of 2014.
At a VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona veteran wait times for care were so long, that the administrators of the facility ordered receptionists to manipulate wait time listings (Stuart). The scandal resulted in the deaths of at least 40 veterans and the resignation of the then secretary of VA, Eric Shinseki (Stuart). The inefficiency of the VA is dire. In 2014, 16 billion dollars was added to the VA budget to allow for reforms that would reduce wait times (Walsh). However, the money was not used effectively. The new hires that came from the added budget did not go to the facilities with the worst wait times and data suggests that the new hires had no impact whatsoever (Walsh). In addition, the hiring process in the VA is so slow that 13 percent of hirees drop out in between the time of hiring and actual first day of job (Walsh). To add to this, there have also been three cases in the past decade where veterans have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis in VA facilities (Marko). The total number is estimated around possibly 10,500 people (Marko). As a result an investigation was launched into the medical regulation of the VA (Marko). The VA’s internal workings are extremely problematic and many veterans are harmed because of it. The VA also does not do enough to reinsert veterans back into society.
The transition back into society can be difficult for veterans. The change from order and security of the military to freedom and possibility of civilian life can prove challenging. To make matters worse, many employers are hesitant to hire veterans. They believe that veterans’ minds are unsuitable for a common workplace (Lewis). Veterans are stigmatized by potential employers and themselves as well. This is due to the stereotype that has arisen that combat veterans are violent (Maclean). The statistic that contributes to this stereotype is that one in five veterans suffers from either depression of PTSD (Maclean). This figure is responsible for the belief that veterans are not fit for a civilian workplace, which makes it harder for veterans to find jobs (Maclean).
Veterans also suffer from “self-stigma,” the fear of opinions of others (Maclean). Therefore, veterans might not even try to find a job, reducing the chances of their employment to zero (Maclean). Another contributor to the present day issue is the lack of popular support. Veterans are at not a priority to most because the most recent wars are not a priority to them. In World War Two, the peak of the treatment of veterans, the national war effort was tremendous and America supported and cared about the war. The Vietnam war was highly opposed and therefore veterans suffered more than ever.
The common factor for both of those wars is that the country cared, whether it was negative or positive. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, America seems to be indifferent (Maclean). This is why the veterans of these wars are not prioritized. According to the only survey conducted on this issue, citizens know very little about the actual wars, and that extends to the veterans of the wars (Maclean). If people do not care about a war, they do not care about its veterans. Some veterans also harm their own chances at a successful life after service. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with their struggles. The recent uptick in PTSD diagnoses, 71% in the between 2011 and 2016, has resulted in an increase of addiction (Farmer). According to Addiction center, over 20% of those suffering from PTSD also suffer from an addiction of some form. These factors account for the 10.5 million unemployed veterans and 7,500 veterans who take their lives each year (Stuart, Marko). Overall, the U.S., as a whole, does little to help veterans back into society and struggles to maintain care for veterans who need it.
From the very beginning of the U.S. to the present day, Veterans have not been given the aid and resources they need to reassimilate into society. The key to aiding veterans effectively and efficiently is focusing on reintegration and providing opportunities. A simple solution would be to provide money for each and every veteran. But, we cannot, as a nation, financially, supply lifetime pensions to all veterans. We saw in the Civil War where the funding of pensions for veterans took up too much of the federal budget and ultimately backfired. The effectiveness of the World War Two GI bill stemmed from the emphasis on reintegration into society rather than just giving money away. This should be the aim of the U.S. Our goal should be to recreate the effects of the World War Two GI bill. To begin, the government would need to encourage the use of and increase education benefits and give schools incentives to accept veterans. The current status of this is that the benefits rarely cover enough cost of tuition (“The Yellow Ribbon Program Explained.”). Then, there needs to be added incentives for employers to employ veterans as well, because currently, veterans are viewed as burdens rather than benefits. Once these opportunities are created, veterans will be able to be more independent. If the U.S. can devote its added resources to reintegration, veterans will be able to provide better for themselves. This includes food, healthcare, housing, etc. This would lessen the need for the VA, which is crucial. The VA is a large government organization and it will always be slow and inefficient like other government organizations. With veterans having tools to provide for themselves, the VA could focus on providing care to the veterans who need it the most and thus, be more effective.
Furthermore, the Department of Veterans Affairs needs larger budget. More money would allow veterans to get the money, care, and attention that they require. Reforms within the department would also be easier to make with a higher budget. To compensate for this budget increase, the U.S. should take money from the national defense budget and apply it to the veterans benefits and aid budget. Since 1962, the national defense budget has shrunk drastically as a percentage of the overall budget (“2019 Estimate”). However, the veterans benefits and aid budget has stayed almost the same as a percentage (“2019 Estimate”). When the national defense budget continues to shrink, as the pattern indicates it will, the veterans benefits and aid budget should grow. There will be no need to increase taxes or revenue because of this. There would also need to be a campaign of some sorts to gain public support of the increased VA budget. This is necessary because the population might want the money from the defense budget to be funneled into other areas. An example of a successful troop campaign was and is the ‘Support Our Troops” campaign. This program has and continues to raise awareness and aid the military service members during and after service (“Support Our Troops”). Through propaganda and advertising, this organization has risen to national recognition level and has partnered with several major companies (“Support Our Troops”). With a campaign like this, the budget adjustments I propose will be easy to accomplish. After all, it is rare today to see a large portion of the population claim that veterans have more than enough help.
With new reforms, goals, and a larger budget, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be able to accomplish its ultimate objective: reciprocating the service that veterans provide to their country.
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