Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Veterans as a Profit Center

Move aside, soldier. You were a hero when you could carry a weapon. Now, you’re just a used up piece of equipment—no more important than a broken down humvee. We’ve got to find some place to put you so you’re out of the way and we won’t have to see those awful scars.

Sound harsh? That’s how our nation has been treating veterans for more than a century, especially the ones who come home in less than one piece.

And, it’s worse than shameful.

Every war our nation has fought, from the Revolution through today, put the sons and daughters of working people at the tip of the national spear. You’ll always find the chicken hawks who make the speeches, rattle the sabers and wave the bloody shirts far behind the lines tucked safely away cheering for our side.

When the time comes to make good on the promises to young recruits—the earnest men and women who made the sacrifices, faced the enemy and earned the title of veteran—the hypocrites look the other way. And, somehow, the money that flowed so freely to fight the war has dried up. A billion here or there for Halliburton; suddenly there’s nothing left for the veterans.

This war—in Afghanistan and Iraq—its execution and its aftermath, is personal for working families. I recall my own experiences in Vietnam, and I can relate. My own nephew has finished three combat rotations. Many labor leaders like me have sons or daughters in uniform. Many of our union members—friends and brothers like Don Bongo at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard—have both served and sent children into service. For us, this is a family issue.

We bear the burden of worry for loved ones sent to war. We carry the sorrow for the casualties. Our families endure not merely the loneliness of separation, but the financial sacrifices, too. We see the pinch on today’s American military, with too many families scrimping to make ends meet, and those spouses and children left at home too often forced on rely on food stamps and public assistance.

Yet, we still see service to the nation as a noble privilege. Unfortunately, not many among America’s political and corporate elite feel the same way.

Our families share the frustration and agony of the vets who return, some with broken bodies, some with broken spirits, or both. For many, the human toll will last a lifetime—pain they will try to relieve with alcohol or drug. They will encounter difficulties in employment and relationships, and homelessness. All these conditions are predictable and very preventable.

The same people who sent out the call to war somehow never thought to prepare a place for the warrior. Since 9/11, America has been creating 200,000 new veterans a year—yet the Bush Administration has failed to request adequate funds to maintain a modicum of medical services through the Veterans Administration. Today’s veterans will put up more than $700 million of their own money in “user fees” to “buy into” VA services. We wouldn’t want to have to ask those wealthy beneficiaries of President Bush’s trillion dollar tax cuts to dip into their pockets for it, now would we?

There is no recess of hell too deep or hot to house the souls of those who proclaim they “support the troops” then turn around and ignore veterans, belittle them, or trample their dignity with bureaucratic red tape. And, there must be a niche in hell even deeper and hotter for those who exploit the plight of veterans for profit.

The Walter Reed scandal is a case in point, but only one of far too many.

As California Rep. Henry Waxman revealed in his subpoena demanding that the Army produce General George Weightman as a witness before the congressional committee investigating this scandal, the Army knew the conditions that existed. They thought no one else would ever find out. In fact, the guilty knowledge goes right up the chain of command through the Pentagon and to the White House. Here and there a courageous underling stood up and warned of the problems—it was Garrison Commander Col. Peter Garibaldi who had the courage to put that warning about the “risk of mission failure” on paper—but those words were ignored.

No surprise, either, that a key contributing factor in the “mission failure” at Walter Reed was that wonderful concept known as “outsourcing” that led to the Army handing over a $120 million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, a firm run by two former Halliburton executives (one with the appropriate last name of Swindle). The process of replacing 300 trained, experienced and dedicated federal workers with some 25 employees of a for-profit contractor to handle facilities maintenance at the complex. Small wonder there was mold and rodents.

Someone like Gen. Weightman may take the fall for Walter Reed, and there will no doubt be other scapegoats trotted out for public humiliation when other identical scandals related to the care and treatment of wounded veterans surface. But behind the scapegoats is a long line of culprits who are equally or more guilty of gutless behavior, criminality, greed and malfeasance. The buck should find its way to that big desk in the Oval Office where “the decider” works.

Understandably, given the scope, level and breadth of corruption that has characterized the past six years of this administration, there is a kind of institutional attention deficit disorder infecting the nation. There is just too much going on to wrap the public’s mind around. We’re grateful to Rep. Waxman for his quick response in scheduling hearings on the Walter Reed matter. We’re now asking congressional leaders from both parties to make veterans issues, especially the treatment of wounded veterans a top priority and to hold extended hearings nationwide to bring this whole sordid mess to the top of the heap. We invite union members from the Metal Trades to share their stories with us and give us an opportunity to bring them forward for official scrutiny.

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