At an Oakland California freeway exit ramp, a disheveled young man held up a sign: “Help a Gulf War vet.” I gave him a dollar. Drivers behind me began to blow their horns, so I didn’t ask him if he had fought in Gulf War I or II.
Several days later, getting gas in Hayward California, I spotted a ‘Support our Troops’ bumper sticker at the pumps. I worked up the nerve to ask the driver what he had personally done to offer backing to the fighting men and women overseas.
The white, late middle aged, clean shaven, well-dressed individual, wearing a neatly ironed sport shirt, pointed to a smaller sticker on his bumper: Semper Fi.
“I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam,” he sneered. “My loyalty doesn’t ebb and flow with the tides of the media,” he boasted. “I support the President 100%.”
I told him I didn’t mean to be pushy, but how, I asked, did his agreement with Bush help people in harms way in Iraq; or when they returned and needed jobs, housing and counseling for post traumatic stress disorders.
“Hmph,” he snorted. “You’re one of those demonstrating liberal draft dodgers.” He assumed a semi-threatening pose, shook his head as if I didn’t merit the energy it would take him to throw a punch.
You can have all of the yellow ribbons on cars that say ‘Support Our Troops’ that you want, “but it’s when they take off the uniform and transition back to civilian life that they need support the most,” says Linda Boone, executive director of The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. (Alexandra Marks, Christian Science Monitor Feb 8, 2005)
Supporting the troops the Bush way costs nothing. Indeed, those who chant loudest in this cause pay less in taxes than previously to support the fighting men and women abroad. Those who want to actually do something for the almost two hundred thousand military men and women in the Afghan and Iraqi messes get scant help from Bush or his Republican Congress.
Homecoming for veterans of war can produce deep distress, rather than a joyful reentry to civilian life. The U.S. government has proven itself prolific at starting wars with little debate about what happens to its soldiers — but not adept at winning them, especially when their opponent fights back. In Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. troops with superior technology fought hard, but those who started and commanded the wars could not provide a strategy for winning them.
Worse, the Korean and Vietnam Wars seem to have taught the war-makers little. High tech and well-trained troops do not substitute for knowledge of the enemy’s history and reality, without which solid strategy becomes impossible.
Nor do slogans provide for the real needs of veterans who did the dirty work. I remember sitting in university classes next to bitter Korean War vets in the 1950s. They benefited from the GI bill, which paid for their education and helped them buy homes. “Yeah, a great deal,” one said to me after we left a history class. “I killed people, saw my buddies killed and wounded. What for?”
So the government would get me through college? Subsequent vets, however, haven’t even received GI Bill benefits. Often, loneliness has become their companion in the transition to civilian life. The beggar holding the sign at the off ramp represents one of hundreds of thousands of former warriors who didn’t convert easily from war to peace. The Veterans Administration admits that hundreds of Iraqi vets already live on the streets. The vets suffer from a residual stress from daily insurgent bombs and that makes it tough to adjust to civilian life. Others can’t find or hold a job and thus cannot afford to rent a house or apartment. (Verena Dobnik, AP, July 2, 2006)
In March 2002, before Bush stuck the country into the Iraq quagmire, a VA report (VA Programs for Homeless Veterans) stated that “one-third of the adult homeless male population and nearly one-quarter (23%) of all homeless adults have served their country in the armed services.”
The VA estimated that “more than 250,000 veterans may be homeless on any given night and that twice as many veterans experience homelessness over the course of a year. Many other veterans are considered at risk because of poverty, lack of support from family and friends and precarious living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing. Almost all (97 percent) homeless veterans are male and the vast majority are single. About 45 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness and, with considerable overlap, slightly more than 70 percent suffer from alcohol or drug abuse problems.”
Add thousands more to this list, those who have recently returned from Iraq. My neighbor, an EMT and acupuncturist specializing in pain relief, joined a Marine medical reserve unit so he could actually “support our troops.” He hated the Iraq war, he said, “but those young people out there are our friends and neighbors and need all the support they can get.” The Marines have yet to call him to serve even as the death (creeping toward 3000 in Iraq) and wounded (near 20,000) count mounts. The President has yet to announce a clear plan for U.S. withdrawal.
Violence escalates and the question on soldiers’ minds “when will we go home?” does not get addressed. The reason for the war “originally weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorism, long dismissed for lack of evidence” remains vague: war on terrorism. That enemy will not surrender, as every GI knows.
On November 17, 2005, former Marine Officer, Congressman John Murtha, reported on the House floor that he had “been visiting our wounded troops in Bethesda and Walter Reed almost every week since the beginning of the war. And what demoralizes them is not the criticism. What demoralizes them is going to war with not enough troops and equipment to make the transition to peace.” But the Administration will not raise the issue of a draft, which they assume would cause campus unrest and cohere public opposition as it did in the 1960s and 70s.
Returnees from Iraq witnessed friends losing limbs or dying. They also saw dead and wounded Iraqi women and children after U.S. bombs and shells hit their homes. The troops who massacred Iraqis in Haditha in November 2005 or raped a girl and murdered her family in Tikrit in March 2006 are “two of many examples of aberrant behavior” — lost their balance during the war itself.
Others lose it later. The military budget contains fat and exclusive contracts to Halliburton and other companies to supply troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Bush has not made it a budget priority to help them afterwards. The VA is flooded with cases of depression, particularly related to amputations, as well as post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that accompanies war.
In New York City, twenty six year old Herold Noel, a homeless Iraqi war vet, sleeps in his jeep. He parks in places where police will not ticket him. “I saw a baby decapitated when it was run over by a truck – I relived that every night.” In Iraq, Noel drove a fuel truck for the military. (AP July 5, 2006)
“Our troops are cracking under the pressure and pain,” wrote Steve Hammons. “Non-stop danger, buddies being blown to bits, urban warfare, ever-present roadside bombs and many other very severe stressors are pushing them over the edge.” (American Chronicle June 2, 2006)
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he is “truly saddened that anyone could have the impression that I or others here are doing anything other than working urgently to see that the lives of the fighting men and women are protected and are cared for in every way humanly possible.” Rumsfeld wanted “soldiers, the sailors, the airmen, the Marines to know that we consider them to be America’s true treasure, and I thank them and I thank their families.” (Jim Garamone American Forces Press Service Dec 22, 2004)
Treasure? That’s what the contracting companies get in Iraq; what Exxon-Mobil has made because war contributes to the rise in oil prices. But Rumsfeld has offered little DOD “treasures” for those he allegedly cares for “in every way.” He has not supported needed therapy or economic aid for the returning troops.
Next time you see a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker, think about how little the government has done to actually help them and how much it has done to get them killed, wounded and screwed-up for the rest of their lives. This Administration ranks high in the list of patriotic rhetoric spouting and at the bottom for actually supporting the troops. Iraqi veterans have come to learn this cruel lesson.