Amidst Scandal, Veterans Will Continue to Be Ignored

Eric Shinseki

Eric Shinseki

This country has been at war for the last decade, and with every passing year it has become harder and harder to know what that means. For the men and women who have been asked to fight, kill, and die in our name, it’s been war as it has always been: bloody, tedious, and difficult. On the home front, however, it has often been a very different matter.

It has been ten years of yellow ribbons, moments of silence, military fly-overs, political pablum, and the unsightly spectacle of military imagery as an advertisement strategy. For ten years, the country has tried – and largely succeeded – to convince people that we can untether our society from the consequences of our military excursions. Less than one percent of the country has served on active duty during the last ten years. And as the tasks in Afghanistan and Iraq grew beyond what was originally envisioned, many of those soldiers were sent back again and again…and again.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been unpaid for, undermanned, and poorly planned. Oftentimes, they have also been largely ignored back home. After initial victories in Afghanistan, the country quickly turned its attention to Iraq while the Forgotten War was allowed to languish. And again, after initial victories in Iraq, the country slowly came to realize that we lacked a clear exit strategy. The wars became a political football, but the urgency had largely left the political conversation.

By the 2012 presidential debates, it was often impossible to tell that the country was still at war. What difference, at this point, did it make? To most Americans, the answer seemed to be ‘none’.

If you think my charge of collective indifference is a bit harsh, consider the plight of military veterans. No, I’m not talking about the recent scandal that resulted in the resignation of Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I’m talking about the backlog that veterans have been facing since the mid-2000s, which groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have tried to draw attention to.

In 2007, an audit showed that the VA was using paper lists in order to hide the delay in care that patients were subjected to. That same year, a scandal broke out over the shameful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And in 2012, a North Carolina building threatened to buckle under the literal weight of bureaucratic backlog.

For all the moral indignation being thrown around in the last couple of weeks, American veterans have been struggling to receive the benefits that they’re entitled to for a long time.  This is not new, so why is it just now that the country seems to care?

It’s probably because now there are reports of potentially criminal activity, and that has all the makings of a political scandal. And when it comes to political scandals, our national discourse is primed and ready to go. Of course, when it comes to the scandal of American fighting men and women being abandoned after they return home, our society has demonstrated that it doesn’t really care.

This is nothing new: America has a long tradition of covering itself in the flag, basking in the glory of its veterans, and then promptly doing remarkably little to take care of them. In 1783, hundreds of veterans of the American Revolution besieged Congress demanding payment for their service. In 1932, as many as 43,000 marchers descended on Washington demanding payment for their time in uniform during World War I. They styled themselves the Bonus Army.

The Bonus Army clashes with the police.

The Bonus Army clashes with the police.

There are bitter ironies in Shinseki’s resignation. In 2003, Eric Shinseki was serving as the Army’s Chief of Staff. During Congressional testimony, Shinseki was asked for his assessment of how many troops the country would need to send into a post-invasion Iraq. His estimate of “several hundred thousand” was in conflict with the Bush administration’s contention that the war would be over quickly and would involve a light footprint.

Administration advisors like Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney quickly pilloried Shinseki. Wolfowitz called Shinseki’s estimate “wildly off the mark.” In fact, it proved to be prescient: the light footprint in Iraq was almost certainly a large driver behind the difficulties the military experienced. No matter; Shinseki was sidelined, and by the time he resigned in November, he had been effectively isolated.

In 2009, Shinseki was brought in by President Obama to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs in great part on the strength of his moral authority. Since 2003, he had become a vocal advocate for veterans, and the episode with the Bush administration had marked Shinseki as a man willing to speak difficult truths to people in power. Five years later, it is clear that Shinseki failed to reform the VA and to overcome the problems he had himself helped bring attention to in the late 2000s.

For some of us, it is distasteful to see Shinseki once again ridden out of town on a rail. But the retired four-star general would probably be the first to point out that that isn’t the most important thing here. The most important thing here is whether or not American veterans will finally get the care they’re entitled to.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that there’s enough political will in the country to turn the mess at the VA into anything other than a political scandal. When was the last time a Congressman went back home to face a town hall filled with voters demanding to know how he was going to take care of veterans?

Politicians have an intuitive sense for what people care enough to vote on, and Americans have proven time and time again that the wellbeing of veterans isn’t one of those things. Instead, the country will keep pretending that we can fight wars abstractly: without serving in them and without paying for them.

And all the meanwhile, the broken bodies, the lost sons and daughters, the physical and mental scars, and countless other things that I can’t begin to understand will stand in silent reminder that we can’t.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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