This country loves to tell you how much we love the troops. It’s practically a national pastime. In fact, people have stopped watching America’s 21st century national pastime because (they say) they don’t like how NFL protests against racism and inequality during the national anthem supposedly disrespect the troops. We talk so much about symbolic issues surrounding our armed forces that we don’t have much time left for reality.
Here’s the reality: America has 40,000 homeless veterans and we are creating more because the Department of Veterans Affairs is criminally incompetent, and no one is raising enough of a stink to do anything about it. Per NBC News:
The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering from a series of information technology glitches that has caused GI Bill benefit payments covering education and housing to be delayed or — in the case of [former member of the U.S. Army, Shelley] Roundtree — never be delivered.
“I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless,” Roundtree said. “I don’t want to be that veteran on the street begging for change because I haven’t received what I was promised.”
Without the GI Bill’s housing stipend, Roundtree was kicked out of his apartment and is now living on his sister’s couch, miles from school, where he feels like a burden on his family. The new living situation required him to move all his belongings into a storage container, which he can no longer afford. Now all of his possessions are in danger of being auctioned off by the storage facility.
Roundtree said that because of his extremely strained finances, he is forced to choose between spending money on public transportation to get to his marketing classes or buying food — not both. At the end of the day, the veteran said he often makes himself go to sleep hungry.
If even half the energy that was put into complaining about Colin Kaepernick was dedicated towards fixing an inherently broken VA that robs so many of our troops of their humanity, perhaps we would live in a more just world. Instead, we can only process difficult topics like this in pure symbolism, because accepting the reality—that we have a policy of sending people off to fight wars in the name of colonialism and then don’t give them the care or resources that they need to assimilate back into civilian life—would mean accepting some harsh truths about this country.
We don’t respect the troops that much. Not when it comes to their well-being. We love to talk about their “sacrifices,” yet we barely reserve any bandwidth to speak about their humanity. We invaded Iraq and didn’t give tens of thousands of troops body armor. Once we did get them body armor, we saddled our troops with an average of 119 pounds of equipment, and according to Military.com, from 2004 to 2007, one-third of medical evacuations from the battlefield “were due to spinal, connective tissue, or musculoskeletal injuries — twice as many injuries as were sustained from combat.”
Things have gotten even worse under Trump. The VA was a complete and utter mess long before he came into office (its inspector general found that as much as 307,000 veterans may have died waiting for health care), but as a ProPublica investigation revealed earlier this year, Trump’s non-appointed cronies are literally running the VA. Per ProPublica:
Last February, shortly after Peter O’Rourke became chief of staff for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he received an email from Bruce Moskowitz with his input on a new mental health initiative for the VA. “Received,” O’Rourke replied. “I will begin a project plan and develop a timeline for action.”
O’Rourke treated the email as an order, but Moskowitz is not his boss. In fact, he is not even a government official. Moskowitz is a Palm Beach doctor who helps wealthy people obtain high-service “concierge” medical care.
More to the point, he is one-third of an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump’s. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.
This is so abhorrent. We wage wars in the name of profit for defense contractors, oil companies and any other special interests who traffic in blood money, and then the people actually doing the sacrificing cannot get the benefits promised to them once they return from the agony of war. Our priorities couldn’t be any clearer. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even dismissed the Saudi mass-murder of civilians in Yemen by saying that punishing them for it would jeopardize $2 billion in arms sales. This is who we are. Profit supersedes empathy in America.
I’ll end with a heartbreaking story from a couple weeks ago: I was on my way to go see a hockey game in downtown Denver, and a man who had clearly been sleeping on the streets walked up to me and said “excuse me sir, I am a veteran who is just looking for a bite to eat, if I did 100 push-ups right here, would you give me a few bucks to go get a hot dog?” I didn’t make him do the push-ups and reached into my wallet and pulled out some cash for him, but the fact that he felt the need to offer to do something for the cash is agonizing. He already did something profound for me, well before I ever met him.
The man clearly didn’t want a “hand-out,” but he knew he needed one, and this was the pitch that he had settled on. As I handed him the cash, I was at a loss for words and eventually spat out something like “this country really sucks, I’m so sorry,”—to which he replied “it doesn’t suck, it’s the greatest country in the world and I thank God every day I was born here. We just have a broken VA.” I barely remember the hockey game from that night, but his optimism in the face of sheer and utter betrayal is a powerful feeling that will stay with me until my very last breath.
Quick journalism note: I didn’t vet his claims that he was in the armed forces, so it’s possible that this was one big lie he had concocted, but given how many veterans live on the streets, there’s never any reason to doubt people like this.
So on this Veteran’s Day, instead of tweeting about how you respect the troops or posting dramatic images of them in war on Facebook, think of the 40,000 homeless veterans and how the VA is creating more of them. You want to really show the troops how much you respect them? Call your representatives and tell them that this status quo is unacceptable. Unless we make fixing a broken VA a priority for those who represent us in government, they will continue to neglect our veterans while waging new wars, and America will continue down this dark path where we use the troops as nothing more than pawns to be tossed aside in our endless pursuit of colonialist profit.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.