Why Is the US Continuing to Fail Veterans?

With sweeping budget cuts in almost every imaginable sector of government in the United States, it is not surprising that funding for veterans has taken a significant hit. That’s an especially big concern in an era when more injured veterans are returning at the same time we’re trying to support aging veterans from Vietnam and Korea who have growing medical needs. The homelessness rate among veterans is on the rise, many are not getting the treatment and support they need, and society in general is largely turning its back on their community.

Why is the United States failing veterans so spectacularly?

Returning veterans are arriving home from unpopular, contentious wars, but that’s not the only reason society seems reluctant to acknowledge their existence, let alone provide any support. Part of society’s problem seems to be the changing nature of battlefield injuries, which have taken the form of pyschological trauma, chronic illness, and head wounds in recent years. These are markedly different from what people think of as ‘conventional’ injuries like amputations and burn scars. Faced with people who have no apparent physical disabilities, people wonder if the cost of war is really as high as advertised.

A whiff of resentment seems to swirl around some veterans too as they pursue their promised government benefits. The United States pledges to give veterans assistance with college, home loans, and other needs when they complete their term of service; it’s part of the deal. Yet, some members of the public seem to resent this in the midst of a crashing economy with rising costs of living. They want to know why veterans qualify for ‘special treatment,’ conveniently forgetting that this treatment isn’t special at all; it’s part of the deal.

Cutting veterans’ services is a disservice to people who were promised benefits, but it’s more than that. It’s a reflection of the government, and society’s, casual attitude towards the people who fight our wars. They’re considered so disposable that it’s not even necessary to back up pledges by following through on them. The government knows it’s unlikely to be held accountable except by a handful of angry citizens and legislators, who aren’t enough to turn back the dominant attitude, that veterans don’t need, or deserve, what they were promised. That failing them is acceptable to balance the budget because ‘we all need to make sacrifices.’

It’s notable that the US military recruits heavily from low-income communities, particularly those inhabited by people of colour. People are promised a chance at something new, something different, something better in exchange for their service and they take the government up on that. Coming from economically depressed areas with few options, they see a shot at getting out and making something of themselves, so they do what anyone else would do: They take the opportunity when it’s offered. The alternative is facing a life of struggling to make do, constantly wondering what might have been.

We send our poor to fight our wars, and they return, we dump them. They lack a social safety net to return to because they never had one in the first place, and they’re not given the safety net that was supposed to help them transition back to civilian life. Under those conditions, it’s not surprising to see veterans turning to criminal activity to make a living, or becoming homeless because they’re unable to manage their medical conditions, can’t find work, and have difficulty advocating for themselves in society. The government is creating these problems, yet it wants to wash their hands of them, choosing to invest funds elsewhere.

Some of that failure also comes from the fact that many civilians operate at a profound disconnect from the military. They may not know anyone who serves, or any veterans, which makes it difficult to understand these issues as anything but an abstraction. They hear about issues like traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, but they don’t really internalise how they play out in larger society; how a rash of unrecognised and untreated TBIs has reached epidemic status in servicemembers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

The lack of familiarity with veterans and military issues contributes to a lack of understanding and a corresponding disinterest in doing research to learn more about the situation. Instead of becoming actively engaged with veterans’ issues, members of the public turn away. Part of this also allows them to avoid their own accountability in the situation. What they don’t know, they think, can’t hurt them, and who cares if it hurts other people, because we should all look out for number one.

As long as civilians refuse to engage with the military, the government is going to continue giving veterans short shrift, because it will know it can get away with it. Working in solidarity with veterans’ groups and contributing to calls for action would force the government to pay attention and be honest about the ways it’s letting veterans down. A large number of people have to participate in that effort, though, which isn’t going to happen as long as people remain complacent about the situation.

The left in particular needs to buck the stereotypes it has been cast in by joining forces with veterans to support their right to access benefits and live in a safe, free society. Your stance about the military and military service shouldn’t be relevant to whether you believe people should be able to access government benefits, because this is also about a lot more than veterans. If the government feels comfortable assailing one of the most historically sacrosanct groups in the United States, you can rest assured that benefits for everyone else are in even more dire straits; and veterans who feel supported may well return that solidarity. Demanding that the government stand by its promises shouldn’t require political wrangling.