Reviewed by Bob Bonner
Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs; by Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early and Jasper Craven. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022. 352 pp.)
Authors Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven, have given us a timely gift in the form of a comprehensive account of our military service men and women and the interplay of social forces that impact their lives.
As a society that relies on the threat of force to further the goal of global hegemony, we all need to read the 352 pages of this book. We are obligated to learn who our veterans are, why they choose to enlist, and how they are changed as young adults the moment they begin basic training, separate from civilian society. They will experience physical and mental injury, as well as face the horrible consequences of moral injury stemming from their tours of duty. They will suffer financial stress being three times more likely to resort to usurious “payday” loans than the general population,
Not surprisingly, we learn that most enlistees come from working class communities and the South and Southwest, often drawn by the promise of health care, education, housing, or just the escape from a life working at Walmart or Wendy’s. Most come from families whose incomes are between $41,000 and $87,000 per year and as much as 40% of active duty and
reserve forces are people of color. To their credit, the authors do not shy away from the C word, class, in describing veterans before and after service. They point to the detrimental effect societal improvements like universal health care and free college would have on the military’s ability to recruit and retain. A Guaranteed Basic Income would also afford more options than taking the oath at the local recruiting office.
This well-researched work just explodes with staggering statistics on the effects of military service on the lives of our most valuable resource. It is a tale of exposure to burn pits, depleted uranium, and other toxins, as well as — in the years after service — PTSD, traumatic brain injury, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and divorce. The reality cries out for public and political awareness and redress of the problems we create as a society and an empire. Damaged bronchial tubes, throat, lung, and brain cancers, anxiety, depression, as well as reproductive issues and recovery from sexual assault for women and a smaller percentage of male veterans demand more attention than the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events. Of course, all these problems are exacerbated in poor and minority communities where the level of support services is found wanting. 19.3 % of minority veterans are divorced, with women outnumbering men.
The writers outline the ongoing, bipartisan attack on VA health care which stems from both ideological and budgetary concerns. The ideologues are determined to see any government- provided service fail, which accounts for the chronic underfunding and staffing shortages in VHA (Veterans’ Health Administration). Yet the Veterans Health Care System outperforms the private sector in study after study, giving lie to the corporate mantra of private sector efficiency and cost containment. The commodification of health care and the capitalist drive for profits has the private sector drooling over potential earnings at the expense of the VA budget. The authors lay bare the behavior of alleged veteran-friendly corporations as well as those from some in the VSO (Veteran Service Organization) community and our elected representatives.
We should not have any illusion that the health and welfare of veterans are paramount among the forces promoting privatization. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have both conducted surveys which demonstrated veteran preference for VHA care.
The private sector is broken. It completely lacks the capacity to provide either mental health or primary care. Some counties have a total absence of mental health providers. The private sector cannot control cost except through increased exploitation of its workforce and denial of care. Nurses are committing suicide in record numbers. 179 hospitals were closed between 2005 and 2014. Attempts by the private sector to provide care to veterans under the misnamed “Choice Act”, have been described as a “disaster” by Senator John Tester and numerous VA providers and support staff. The AIR (Asset Infrastructure Review) created under Trump’s Mission Act is due to present Congress with its list of facilities it will recommend for closing. Congress is only allowed an up or down vote on the Commission recommendations.
In contrast, many veteran’s advocates propose opening up VHA to new categories of veterans rather than closing and or privatizing the VHA. They would allow bad paper discharges access, families of nonveteran VA employees, and to disadvantaged communities lacking mental health and primary care resources. The VA Chief Consultant on Mental Health, states, “When somebody serves in the military, their family serves right along with them.” You can’t treat them in a vacuum.
The supporters of VHA are named as well, among labor, the veteran community, and a couple of members of Congress. There is some scrutiny of the dismal performance of veterans in Congress who fall in line to vote for every military spending proposal with only two voting for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to cut the military budget by 10%, Ted Lieu and Pete DeFazio. Of course, those elected are recruited and screened by the Democratic Party and there is an absolute dearth of representatives from the enlisted ranks which are 90% of all active-duty troops. Recall Rahm Emmanuel, as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recruiting centrist or right-wing veteran candidates at the expense of long-time progressive party activists. Tulsi Gabbard is the shining example of what befalls those who challenge the Pentagon war machine.
The bottom line is that, as the most warlike country on earth, we have consistently refused to recognize the true costs of war and our obligation to make whole our fellow citizens harmed by our military adventures.
We have failed our veterans. From Washington’s Continental Army, through the Civil War, to the Bonus March of 1932 addressed by two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Smedley Butler, from turning our backs on the Korean and Vietnam vets and now the vets of the never-ending post 9/11 wars, our failures are glaring.
–Bob Bonner is former president of AFGE Local 2028 in Pittsburgh, PA where he represented US Veterans Administration workers.