Veterans Might be Caught in the Slipstream of Trump Turmoil

Little Rock   The latest news flash is that current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and former four-star Marine general, John Kelly, has been named the chief of staff at the White House, busting out another 6-month wonder. The hope is that he will bring discipline, order, and stability to the White House, but it’s a long stretch to believe that. Just imagine Ivanka, Jared, the boys, and President Trump as Marines for even a moment, and you know it’s just a picture that doesn’t fit. Trump is calling in Kelly to be recess monitor for a wild bunch running and yelling constantly. I just don’t see this working out well, but we’ll hope for the best.

Speaking of turmoil and the Trump’s generals, I would also argue that the state and protection of the health and welfare of our veterans is worth a bunch of worry as well. In almost a footnote, Congress recently was unable to pass the “popular” Choice bill for veterans health care. Seems that rather than increase the appropriation as needed, they simply tried to reappropriate money within the Veterans Administration budget and move it around to fund Choice while cutting back elsewhere. This is a department where most observers already felt it was unfunded in looking after 22 million veterans in the United States now, 9 million of whom use the VA for their primary and ongoing healthcare. If veterans healthcare isn’t protected, you know the rest of us are in deep, deep trouble.

Not that the Choice bill is anything to necessarily celebrate. Recently we spoke at some length with Suzanne Gordon, an expert in this area, who wrote a recent book about the strengths and weaknesses of the VA healthcare system, with her recommendations excerpted in the current issue of Social Policy. Choice is basically a system that allows a qualified veteran to chose a private doctor outside of the VA system and have it reimbursed by the federal government. There are certainly situations in which this is necessary. Obviously, there can’t be a VA hospital or clinic everywhere, especially given the ratio of military veterans to rural parts of America, but the real deal, according to Gordon and most anyone who has looked at the matter, is that this is a huge stalking horse for privatization of the system. That’s a problem!

Gordon was effusive on the many strengths of the VA system, especially in the areas of mental health and response to the drug crisis sweeping large parts of the country. All VA personnel are trained on mental health cues and signs of depression and suicide prevention, though ironically one of the programs threatened by the funding situation is in fact the suicide crisis line. No private facility can beat that record. So, yes, she acknowledges, there have been issues around waiting lines and other matters, but that still does not argue that the VA system currently continues to be best-in-class.

So, why the privatization push by some representatives? The VA is a public institution, and private hospitals, clinics and doctors are just that, private. They can make contributions to political campaigns. I rest my case. This is not about care, but campaigns.

General Kelly is no liberal. His performance at Homeland Security has been frightening. We can’t expect miracles, but at least a general might make sure his former soldiers are taken care of better.


Boulders Still on the Road Forward for Standing Rock

New Orleans    The headlines on the progressive websites have been big and bold and heralded that “Resistance Works” in the wake of the delay won this week in construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Oahe Reservoir, the subject of massive protests by the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of supporters. The websites are right – protests did work.

But, it was more than simple protests. What worked was a massive and entrenched show of force in the face of a confrontation that clearly no one on either side really wanted, no matter how much some of the fire breathers from the sheriff’s office and elsewhere might have wanted to provoke conflict and violence. The prospect of violence was likely a bigger threat than any slogans on protest signs.

The scale shifted decidedly in favor of the protestors when groups mobilizing veterans to support the Standing Rock Sioux announced that they would arrive coinciding with the state’s attempt to close the park where much of the encampment was located. The million dollars raised by the veterans on GoFundMe’s website was a serious statement. They claimed that 2000 veterans had signed up, and they were disciplined and talking tough. News accounts indicated that certainly 250 actually did come for sure and likely more where there, but by that time the Army Corp of Engineers had finally blinked, likely with a huge shove from the White House and denied the permit at least for now.

The pictures of the protests and reports from the field were heroic. This all looks like a modern day Valley Forge with protestors hunkered down and flag waving the snow. The mounted horsemen are dramatic. The symbols are stark. The Indians are resolute. And, truth to tell, they all look freezing cold and miserable! Winter in North Dakota is no one’s idea of a vacation spot in December. This is serious business.

Equally sobering is the flimsy feeling of the victory, since temporary is stamped all over it. The North Dakota congressman says build, baby, build. President-elect Trump has said he’s for finishing the job. He’s even interviewing oil company executives these days for jobs like Secretary of State for goodness sakes. Environmental lawyers said they would sue over any re-issuance of the permit, and the demands for a complete environmental study looking at alternatives is still reasonable and right. The head of the tribe played the situation perfectly by saying he looked forward to having an opportunity to make the case for rerouting the pipeline to Trump when possible.

A standing party will likely maintain the encampment through the winter until spring. Better weather will offer the opportunity to revive the support, because this fight could become iconic as the delays stretch from months into potential years. Even the pipeline builders with enough time may want to reroute just to be done with the job so that they can see the oil coursing through the pipes and collect their final paychecks.

A battle may have been won, but not the war. There’s a whole lot more fighting that will have to be done before all of us can count coup on another pipeline project.