ANTIWAR PROTESTS MISS THE ANGER OF VETERANS
by Jimmy Montague
American Reporter Correspondent
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- On Saturday, Feb. 15, 2003, the news was all of protest. Antiwar marches crowded the streets of Washington and other American cities. The protesters carried signs that read "No War for Oil," "No War for Revenge," "No War on the Iraqi People," "No Race War," "No Religious War," and "No War for Profit."
A few days later, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes the weary blocks of downtown's Skid Row, took note of those protests during a debate on a still-contested resolution against the war.
"I want to see this same passion when I want to save the lives of veterans who make their homes on the sidewalks," Perry said.
While President Bush pounds the war drum and protesters pound the streets, America's veterans pound away at Uncle Sam's indifference to their problems.
To tell of just a few:
At least 7,758 Desert Storm vets have died since the war's end. Some 209,000 Desert Storm vets have filed for medical benefits; 161,000 collect disability payments. The postwar casualties are due to a malady with diverse, debilitating and sometimes deadly symptoms that is vaguely known as "Gulf War Syndrome," or GWS.
Officials first refused to admit that GWS exists. Now, after being forced to admit that GWS is real, they remains reluctant to discuss GWS and seem unable to determine its cause. Veterans say GWS results from exposure to chemical and biological weapons that American corporations sold to Saddam Hussein, an outrage that Uncle Sam is trying to hush up. True or not, the government denies it without attempting a thorough public investigation.
Frustrated by its refusal to act, more than 5,000 Gulf War veterans in 1994 got mad and sued the government for compensation. Their lawsuit moved slowly for eight years because both the government and the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) refused to share relevant information with veterans' attorney, Gary Pitts.
But the veterans' action got a shot in the arm last year when former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter went to Iraq and brought out a copy of Iraq's 1998 weapons declaration, which he obtained from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and gave to Pitts. The documents list some companies that sold chemical weapons to Iraq before the Gulf War. Pitts has already sued several of those firms and plans to sue the rest.
Vets were further outraged just weeks ago, when the Bush administration censored Iraq's 2002 weapons declaration before anyone else had a chance to see it. Among other things struck from the document was a list of 24 U.S. corporations that made money arming Iraq. For 10 years during the Iran-Iraq war, the United States openly tilted towards Saddam's regime, and many American defense firms profited by aiding Hussein.
According to Swiss journalist Andreas Zumach, to whom the uncensored information was leaked, the list includes Hewlett-Packard, DuPont, Honeywell, Rockwell, Tectronics, Unisys, Bechtel, International Computer Systems, TI Coating and Sperry.
Worse still: information deleted from the 2002 Iraqi declaration "... shows that U.S. governmental agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Commerce, and Agriculture, as well as the U.S. government nuclear weapons laboratories Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia, all helped Iraq build its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs by providing supplies and/or training," Zumach wrote, suggesting that all of those activities were illegal.
The Department of Veterans Affairs health care system has always been underfunded. But the fact was never more disgraceful than today, when President Bush and his Congress say government can afford bigger military budgets, a worldwide war on terror, a war on drugs, a war on Iraq, higher deficits, tax cuts for the rich, but can't afford to fund veterans' health care. While the President and Congress lie about their priorities, more than 300,000 veterans nationally wait six months or more to see a physician.
The President's hypocrisy is magnified by the the economic recession. Tens of thousands of veterans who were getting healthcare benefits from employers have lost their jobs. Those vets now march into the underfunded, overstressed VA healthcare system.
During World War II and the Korean Conflict, military recruiters promised volunteers free medical care for life. Recently, veterans of World War II and Korea were therefore furious when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided the government needn't honor this promise because it wasn't written into law. The vets concerned "... received free benefits until 1995, when the Pentagon ended those benefits for veterans over 65 because they were eligible for Medicare. Many of them had to purchase supplemental policies, including Medicare Part B, to fill coverage gaps," the court said.
"Congress recently enacted legislation providing free health care for all of these older veterans beginning in 2002. What is at stake in this case is the [out-of-pocket] costs, estimated by Justice Department officials as billions of dollars, paid by older veterans between 1995 and 2001," a Baltimore newspaper wrote. Plaintiffs promise an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Veterans nationally await the outcome.
Seen a homeless man lately? Chances are one in four that man is a veteran. The VA says "homeless veterans are mostly males (2 percent are female). The vast majority are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities." Some 45 percent suffer from mental illness, often post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Half have substance abuse problems.
They are men and women who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, or the military's anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67 percent served our country for at least three years and 33 percent were stationed in a war zone, according to the Veterans Administration.
The VA estimates (Nobody attempts an accurate count) that "more than 275,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. More than 500,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year." The VA cares for some 40,000 homeless vets annually. The rest are thrown onto private charity and nonprofit groups. The upshot is that most homeless vets are homeless and the nation doesn't seem to care.
By now you probably think I'm driving toward the idea that the Bush administration shouldn't go to war with Iraq until every homeless veteran is sheltered and cared for; until all veterans are given the health care they were promised, regardless of when or where they served. You're right. But it's bigger than that.
According to articles published in the Boston Globe during the 2000 presidential campaign, the present Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States may have been a "deserter," or at least AWOL, during his term of military service in the early 1970s. Republicans insist that the President completed his Vietnam-era hitch in the Air National Guard, but neither official records nor statements by his superior officers interviewed by the Globe support that contention. Instead, evidence indicates that President Bush walked away from the last 12 months of his enlistment contract. His whereabouts during that time remain unknown, however, and he has never been prosecuted for desertion.
Because of the President's dubious service record, many vets smell a rat when he visits hospitalized troops, as he did at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently. His mouth says wounded soldiers are "incredibly brave," and "America's finest citizens," but his actions and policies suggest otherwise to me.
America's AWOL chief executive has never been shot at, so far as we know. Neither have his belligerent advisors, save only Secretary of State Colin Powell – which probably explains why Powell seems the most reasonable of the lot. Few of the others ever served our country outside of a cushy government job. Almost every one is a Vietnam-era draft dodger. As a group they are privileged rich kids who found ways to avoid service. Some hold investments that will make them richer still, if we go to war. News media call them "chicken hawks," because that is what they are.
"I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed ... managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units ... Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal ..." , Powell wrote in his autobiography.
Those of us who did serve recently learned what the chicken hawks think of us. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke in January about Vietnam-era draftees, saying the soldiers "... added no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services." In other words, most of the young men killed in Vietnam had no value to their country. Rummy later apologized, saying he was sorry for his remarks, but many vets are unimpressed. Some things just cannot be retracted.
If you're a parent who still grieves for your long-dead son, the knowledge that your child was worthless should help you through the process. If you're a parent who spent the last 35 years caring for a son made quadriplegic by a Vietnamese explosion, Rumsfeld's statement should ease your conscience as you unplug your child's life support, wheel him out behind the garage, and leave him to die of exposure. He was worthless when he was whole, so why burden yourself further? If you're a parent whose son or daughter will serve in Gulf War II, you ought to think about the fact that if your son or daughter gets disabled, the expense of long-term care will weigh heavily on you for as long as Congress refuses to fully fund VA healthcare.
Now I am at the end of my rage and it is this: as long as there is one homeless, hungry veteran in the United States of America, we are a nation of liars and hypocrites. As long as that is true, we must own that if we are led by a gang of thieves and war profiteers, the onus is no more than we deserve.
Antiwar protests of Jan. 18 thus missed the point. We should not protest that our so-called leaders want to war for cynical reasons. We should protest instead that until we the people we punish war profiteers, until we honor promises we made to our veterans, until we care for our homeless poor, until we clean up corruption in Wall Street and Washington, until we are no longer content to be misled and abused by a flock of blustering, profiteering chicken hawks, we are unfit to wage war for any reason.