The ways in which the military has become a political football over recent weeks – the Veterans Administration health scandal, the Maine National Guard controversy, anger over a POW swap – are disheartening to say the least.
Yes, the military is always being abused by politicians, but there seems something especially petty about the political posturing around the VA. As if we haven’t known for decades that it is unprepared to properly care for all our veterans, news that there are long waiting lists for care at VA hospitals has led to an orgy of finger-pointing.
Gen. Eric Shinseki, who had part of a foot blown off by a land mine in Vietnam, was forced to resign as Secretary of Veterans Affairs because of the waiting list scandal. But most reasonable people understand that it was not his fault. Nor was it President Obama’s fault, any more than it was that of his predecessors. Former Vice President Dick Cheney should be tarred and feathered for pointing fingers, after he and his puppet president, George W. Bush, sent thousands of Americans off to fight, die and swell the ranks of VA hospitals for the big WMD lie.
And it sure as shootin’ was not the fault of Congressman Mike Michaud who, if he has accomplished anything at all as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, it has been to champion veterans’ affairs. The fact that both Gov. Paul LePage and independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler have been trying to make political hay by blaming Michaud is disgusting, pure and simple. Neither man is going to win a single vote by trying to pin this national disgrace on Mike Michaud.
Now LePage has joined other grandstanding governors in seeking federal authority to investigate the VA in their states. LePage, the nominal commander-in-chief of the Maine National Guard, was caught completely off guard when the general he appointed as its head was poised to trade a useful engineering battalion for an unwanted infantry battalion. So it seems highly unlikely the governor can do a better job than the feds at checking up on the VA. But, as much as it pains me to say so, it’s not LePage’s fault the VA is so dysfunctional.
So whose fault is it that the VA treats veterans so poorly?
Some say it’s an entrenched VA bureaucracy that has a financial incentive to cook the books and make waiting lists look shorter than they are. Others think it’s the fault of hypocritical politicians like Sen. John McCain, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who called for Shinseki’s ouster after voting against budget increases for VA treatment facilities. And, yes, I’m sure government flunkies bear plenty of the blame.
But the real blame belongs to us, the American people. We, the people, are to blame for the shoddy treatment of our veterans because, despite all the flag waving, yellow ribbons and happy talk, we simply do not support our troops.
We continue to allow our political leaders to send military personnel off on endless, pointless missions, placing these men and women in harm’s way for no good reason. We pay them starvation wages to do our dirty work while private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan make zillions. With close to half the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, no wonder the system is overburdened. And then we allow the VA to provide lousy health care because it would cost us too much to provide first-class service.
My theory about why the military is so poorly treated is that they are a largely invisible minority. Less than half of 1 percent of Americans serve in the military now, and only 7 percent of Americans are veterans. Maine is home to one of the highest concentrations of veterans, with slightly more than 10 percent of the population having served. But even here, with Loring Air Force Base and Brunswick Naval Air Station gone, when was the last time you saw a man or woman in uniform, unless you were greeting troops at Bangor International?
Americans have become estranged from their military. We are grateful that someone is willing to serve, but we are ambivalent at best about the use of military force, even more so about what is ultimately being accomplished. When our brave men and women in uniform return from overseas not as victors but as victims, we compound our failure to support them by failing to care for them.
That’s not Eric Shinseki’s fault. That’s not Mike Michaud’s fault. That’s our fault.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.