Donning decade-appropriate headgear, the 51-year-old anchorman on Comedy’s Central’s “The Daily Show” highlighted the ’80s with VA hospitals underreporting high mortality rates; the ’60s with soldiers exposed to Agent Orange winding up, two decades later, suffering with cancer and nervous system damage and the ’30s with footage of the “Bonus Army” — World War I vets demanding promised pay bonuses during the early years of the Depression.
But breaking promises to veterans is not, as Stewart lamented, just a 20th century phenomenon. Revolutionary soldiers were also cheated out of pledged pensions and back pay after the War for Independence.
Veterans don’t have much recourse when treated unfairly by the federal government.
The Bonus Army soldiers tried enacting a peaceful protest by camping out across the river from the Capitol. Ultimately it took tanks, tear gas and infantry commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to drive them out — but at a great cost.
Two infants died and hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then liaison with the Washington, D.C., police, later recalled, “The whole scene was pitiful. The veterans were ragged, ill-fed and felt themselves badly abused. To suddenly see the whole encampment going up in flames just added to the pity.”
Arguably the disgruntled troops in 1783 might have gone a bit too far when they took members of Congress hostage but, as they claimed, nothing else seemed to grab their attention.
Why not just sue Uncle Sam?
You can’t. The Veterans United for Truth, Inc. and Veterans for Common Sense found that out after filing a class-action lawsuit in 2007. You see, extended wait times to see VA doctors is not just a recent problem. Although they fought valiantly for five years, without the Supreme Court taking the case — and deciding once and for all whether veterans have a constitutional right to medical benefits — the legal route proved, at least for now, a dead end.
As the story goes, when Ronald Reagan was on the campaign trail, he had promised to help sick vets. Once he had moved into the Oval Office, however, somebody at the Office of Management and Budget had him over for a wee chat that soon had him exercising his selective memory.
Apparently, he was persuaded that the cost of treating victims of Agent Orange would bankrupt the country.
So, it’s all about filthy lucre. Yet, I can still recall a colossal expenditure of capital on veterans just after World War II. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 or the GI Bill was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 22, 1944, and provided returning vets with funds for education, unemployment insurance and low-cost housing or business loans.
The rationale behind the GI Bill may have been to avoid a postwar recession, since some 15 million military men and women (32,800 Americans are still in Afghanistan) were due to hit the unemployment rolls, but investing in these vets paid off royally.
The nation subsequently enjoyed two decades of postwar prosperity while the middle class expanded exponentially.
Wrap your mind around this. By 1956, when the 1944 act expired, the education/training portion had disbursed $14.5 billion ($122.62 billion in today’s dollars) yet, the Veterans Administration (now Veterans Affairs) reported, the increase in federal income taxes alone paid for the bill several times over.
So why does America react to its returning warriors like some sort of deadbeat dad?
Ask any shellshocked divorcee saddled with a former spouse who reneges on his alimony and/or child support payments.
She still remembers the proud papa he had been only last year. She has no idea who this guy — scrambling to distance himself from his once cherished family — is. In addition, she quickly discovers he also expects, along with the divorce decree, a clean slate — free from expenditures that might interrupt the financing of his “new life.”
Isn’t this exactly what happens in Washington after every war?
Both Congress and deadbeat dads need an attitude adjustment.
Allow me to suggest that this could be accomplished with a simple word change. Instead of talking about military budget expenditures, let’s call them investments instead.
Even Republicans understand you have to spend money to make money. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.
As Stewart concluded at the end of “Terrible Memory Lane” (albeit in words not appropriate for a family newspaper) “America has had, for more than 200 years, a bipartisan tradition of honoring those who have fought for our freedom by (expletive deleted) them over once they’ve given their guns back.”
Veterans have invested in this country — so very personally — in ways we are just beginning to understand. Isn’t it about time we returned the favor?