Making Veterans Day for All Veterans

ACORN Wade's World

             Pearl River      With wars in the news all around the world in Ukraine, Israel, Myanmar, Sudan, Armenia, and elsewhere, veterans were on my mind.  Since war is so important to nation states, how do they really handle their veterans?

           This has always been a question for me.  Some of my earliest organizing experiences were organizing and demonstrating against the Vietnam War and America’s conduct in it.  Fifty years ago, one of the early organizing drives for ACORN in Arkansas had been to create not only community organizations but also the Vietnam Veterans Organizing Committee (VVOC) and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee (UWOC) to deal with the special issues and campaigns faced by those parts of our membership.  Steve McDonald, the first president of ACORN had initially been an active member of the VVOC, as a retired career soldier, who then also became a mainstay in the Centennial Park neighborhood when members organized in ACORN’s 1972 “Save the City” Campaign.  We were in the church that taught “hate the war, love the warrior.”

           I reached back out to Steve Early and Suzanne Gordon to see what they were observing on the status of US veterans around this Veterans Day.  We had talked before on Wade’s World about their book last year, Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs.  They gave mixed reviews to the Biden administration on many of these issues in no small part because the privatization efforts of the VA health system continue.  The administration’s recent actions on extending more benefits and support to veterans who were suffering health effects from their work around burn pits in our more recent military engagements in the Mideast and Afghanistan were on the positive side.  We also talked about the recent news of health issues for soldiers handling artillery as well.

           All of which found us wallowing with way too many veterans in a black hole referred to as OTH or Other Than Honorable discharge.  Having fought in the peoples’ army, rather than the regular military, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the term, but listening to Suzanne and Steve explain it to me, the injustice behind too much of it was overwhelming.  This discharge classification has been a broad tag applied to people with mental health issues, many of which were triggered by their service to the country, like those gunners.  Hundreds of thousands were cashiered out on this basis for sexual orientation issues.  What might have been a category for severe disciplinary infractions has become a dumping ground for many soldiers with PTST and other issues that made their senior officers uncomfortable.  As Steve pointed out on Wade’s World, these officers are judged on the number of “deployable” troops under their command, so they have a huge incentive to push out anyone with any kind of problem or who doesn’t fit, regardless of whether it is ”by the book.”

           Worse, an OTH designation, as well as what I learned are called ELS or Entry Level Separations in the first 180 days of service for various reasons, means that most veteran benefits are denied.  Not because it is the law or based on any Congressional action, but more likely for budgetary reasons than anything else.  Reading a bit, it seems there is a process a veteran can initiate to get a review to qualify for benefits, but it is arduous and time consuming.  Denying benefits to hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of veterans who received an OTH because of their actual service, rather than any violations, is a travesty of injustice.  I asked Steve and Suzanne if this wasn’t the equivalent in other occupations to a company trying to deny workman’s compensation to a worker hurt on the job, and they agreed that it was analogous.

           It goes without saying that denying health, education, and retirement benefits to such soldiers is terrible, but as tragic is the fact that they are also stigmatized in looking for future employment.  They are denied preferences given to other veterans, of course, but many employers also look askance at an OTH or ESL thinking, if they couldn’t make it in the military, they won’t be an asset on my job.  These are permanent scars for young men and women whose only real crime was trying to serve their country, while they were still teenagers or in their early 20’s, when there but for good fortune might go all of us.

           Show the flag on Veterans Day, thank someone for their service, or shake their hands when they board the plane early, but once you’ve finished those little performances, think about joining Steve and Suzanne and doing something real and joining a campaign to make sure that veterans get justice and have all the rights they have earned fully guaranteed to them.