This past Monday was Veterans Day, a federal holiday that honors all of the men and women who have served or are currently serving in the United States Armed Forces. It is held on Nov. 11, the day when major military hostilities formally ended in the First World War as a result of the Armistice with Germany in 1918. While this day is filled with parades and events honoring our country’s bravest individuals, it portrays an alternate reality of what it means to be a veteran in America. We may honor our veterans through songs and speeches, but when it comes to truly welcoming these heroes home, our government and society has failed them.
Our perception of US veterans and society’s treatment of our returning soldiers has changed over the second half of the 20th century, as America has ascended to be the world’s only super power. Conscription, also known as the military draft, had been employed by our government several times since 1900, as the US could not avoid being an isolationist country any longer. The draft was used in colonial times for the establishment of militias as well as during the American Civil War, but its use increased as the US became more involved in world affairs.
In all major conflicts of the 20th century up to the Vietnam War, conscription had been used to create a civilian army to defend American interests and ideals abroad. The image of the military and veterans was different at that time, as returning soldiers were viewed as the heroes who not only protected the security of our country, but also the foundations of Western liberal democracy. Even as our enemy changed from fascist empires to communist regimes, our veterans were always considered the bravest citizens who put their lives on the line so we could enjoy the American way of life at home.
All of this changed with the Vietnam War, a publicly unpopular war and the longest military campaign the US had undertaken at the time. The Vietnam War cost 58,220 American soldiers their lives and ruined the lives of countless veterans. Blame for this long and costly war was taken out against the returning soldiers by the public, not against the administrations of Johnson and Nixon who were most responsible for America’s first major military defeat. After the massive failure in Vietnam, conscription was mostly eliminated by the US government, changing our military from being comprised of civilian soldiers to professional soldiers.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the use of American military power has increased significantly, with more major conflicts being fought in the past two decades than during the four decades the US was engaged in the Cold War. Yet as our military is being sent over seas more and more to protect American interests and ideals, our treatment of the veterans who return home has gotten exponentially worse.
As WWII drew to an end, President Roosevelt signed into law the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act. Better known as the GI Bill, this law not only changed the lives of millions of men returning from war, but it seriously boosted the US economy to become the world’s best. The GI Bill earned veterans four years of higher education funding, which resulted in veterans comprising 49 percent of US college enrollment in 1947. They were also provided low-interest, no down payment home loans which helped boost home building and dramatically increased housing options for veterans. Through the Korean and Vietnam wars, the GI Bill was amended to suit the needs of newer veterans. President Johnson expanded benefits to include men and women who served during peacetime, and while educational benefits were reduced, unemployment insurance and job placement benefits were added. The most recent changes to the GI Bill grant housing and educational support to veterans with at least 90 days of service post 9/11.
Unfortunately, the importance of assimilating our veterans back into society has fallen by the wayside in the past few decades. With the government shutdown having ended and sequestration cuts back in effect, the chances of our veterans ever having a normal life again after serving is diminishing. According to our September jobs report, the unemployment rate in the US is 7.2 percent, but the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is a staggering 10.1 percent. As veterans continue to come home from serving abroad, they will be marginalized in society since sequestration has not only cut back educational support for veterans but also programs that support homeless veterans and those in need of employment training, job grants, and mental health support.
President Obama spoke this week at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, stating, “We will never forget the profound sacrifices made in our [country’s] name,” pledging that the returning troops will be the “best cared-for, best treated, best respected veterans in the world.” I would imagine that the President might reword that statement if he were aware of the fact that the Veterans Administration estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide everyday, twice the national average among the general population. For a nation that boasts to have the most powerful military in the world, with the strongest and most determined soldiers, we treat our returning veterans as though they are criminals and undesirables.
Our veterans, especially those who have fought in conflicts after the end of the Cold War, have protected our nation’s security and ideals and are suffering from mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, because of it.
These men and women cannot drive down the street without fear of an IUD exploding, or go into a public area without determining the threat level of everyone they see. These heroes are paranoid, scared, and lonely, and the public refuses to listen to them. We think commemorating these individuals during a halftime show at a professional sports game is enough to give back to those who fight for everything we believe in as Americans, yet it is nowhere near enough. Until we give veterans sufficient mental and physical healthcare on the road to helping them finish their education or get a job, we as a society have not done our duty to the individuals who have served our country.
Brad Bachman, Staff Writer