Many events are planned across the county during the annual observance of Veterans Day, all with at least the stated purpose of honoring and thanking people who donned the uniforms and took the oaths to serve in our armed forces.
Veterans Day events are great and the number of them in recent years proves we’re still attempting to atone for the disgraceful treatment of Vietnam-era veterans during and in the years just after that war.
Events to honor and thank veterans are fine. Veterans Day is also a good time to consider that we owe veterans more than that, however, and to ask how well the nation is keeping its end of the bargain struck when those oaths were sworn.
The country has a spotty history when it comes to meeting its obligations to veterans.
The VFW was founded in 1899 in part to draw attention to the plight of veterans of the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, who had contracted such tropical diseases as yellow fever, which nobody knew much or seemed to care much about.
All of which sounds a lot like the situation with Agent Orange syndrome after Vietnam, which in turn sounds a lot like the situation with Gulf War Syndrome. In both cases, veterans and their advocacy groups had to fight for years to get the government to acknowledge the problem and take action.
The Hoovervilles of the Great Depression were populated by World War I veterans gone to Washington to demand benefits they believed they had earned. They were met with force applied by the same army in which many had served.
The country did better after World War II. It invested in the GI Bill of Rights, for example, which paid for a whole generation of men who’d survived the conflict to attend colleges and universities. They, in turn, built the modern United States.
Politicians worked diligently in the years after World War II to roll those benefits back, however. By the post-Vietnam era, educational benefits for veterans had been cut to a point they were hardly worth mentioning.
Cold War-era veterans who manned the Fulda Gap on the border between East and West Germany or DMZ between North and South Korea or held any of a thousand other essential and mostly thankless jobs while their contemporaries built civilian careers, were obliged to go into debt if they wanted a college education.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has descended into scandal over its inability to process claims quickly and fraud committed by some of its top administrators at the expense of veterans. At least part of the administration’s failing stems from Congress’ refusal to provide adequate funding. Instead of quickly solving the problem, Congress used the scandal as a political weapon with each party attempting to hang the blame on the other. The inevitable losers in that political struggle are the veterans.
There’s little doubt most Americans want to do right by veterans. Most are probably even willing to pay for it. Political crimes against veterans happen when the people aren’t looking.
So, by all means attend a Veterans Day event, hear speeches and thank a vet. If we really want to honor their service, though, we all must work to keep government honest on veterans issues.
• Michael A. Smith
Editor’s note: This editorial was first published in 2015.