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For Returning American Soldiers Seeking Health Care, the Real War Begins at Home

05/27/2014 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014
DanielBendjy via Getty Images

American soldiers: love 'em and leave 'em? The appalling treatment of American war veterans in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals nationwide is not the first example of our country's often-tragic indifference to its returning war heroes.

President Obama is "madder than hell." Senator John McCain wants an overhaul of Veterans Affairs and hospital leadership. The sad truth is that, in the larger, historical context of this scandal, it's easy to predict that very little will be done to bring about genuine change. Most politicians are aware of how VA hospitals treat their patients and only express their outrage when the latest scandal erupts. They are quick to praise our soldiers in battle and just as quick to discard them in peace.

More Americans than we wish to admit have their own horror stories of family or friends who fought valiantly for our country and suffered life-long injuries; yet returned to a callous government health care bureaucracy that treated them like pariahs. Today, the center of the scandal is the Phoenix VA Health Care System. In 2007, it was "the shining jewel" of government health care, Walter Reed Hospital, which came under fire for its neglect of war vets. At that time, a Washington Post story revealed "Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

The Washington Post story recounted the tale of Vera Heron, a mother who spent 15 months at the bed of her son. "It just absolutely took forever to get anything done," Heron said. "They do the paperwork, they lose the paperwork. Then they have to redo the paperwork. You are talking about guys and girls whose lives are disrupted for the rest of their lives, and they don't put any priority on it."

The Gulf Between
Prior to Iraq, our Persian Gulf War veterans suffered their own indignities. After returning home in 1991, many began to complain of unusual symptoms that came to be known as the Gulf War Syndrome. Veterans suffered headache, memory loss, fatigue, sleep disorders, and respiratory ailments. In all, more than 150,000 veterans claimed to have developed symptoms of the disease. Of these, more than 67,000 filed disability claims. Yet for many years, the Pentagon denied there was any connection between their symptoms and their tours of duty in the Gulf. It wasn't until 1997 that the government finally admitted that close to 99,000 soldiers may have been exposed to low levels of sarin, a nerve gas, while they were on duty.

Damned in 'Nam
The Vietnam War was arguably one of the most unpopular in our country's history. When veterans returned home, businesses refused to hire them, seeing them all as drug addicts and murderers. The U.S. government did little to help them assimilate into society, refusing to accept that the emotional symptoms thousands of them suffered, labeled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was real. The result was that a significant number of veterans became homeless, emotionally incapable of functioning in society.

Many veterans also fought the government over illnesses suffered as a result of their exposure to Agent Orange, the nickname given to an herbicide used by the U.S. military during warfare in Vietnam. The government originally denied their claims, insisting there was no connection. More than 20 years later, in 1993, when the Department of Veterans Affairs finally admitted a possible connection, less than 500 veterans had been compensated.

Lost in Translation

The Bonus Army of 1932 was composed of more than 20,000 World War I veterans and their families who demonstrated in Washington, D.C., demanding immediate payment of a "bonus" that was promised to them through the Adjusted Service Certificate Law of 1924, which was supposed to be paid later, in 1945. The country was in the grips of the Great Depression, and many of the protestors were poor and unemployed, with little prospect of finding jobs, and this money was their only salvation.

While the American people saw them as underdogs trying to get what was rightfully theirs, J. Edgar Hoover's administration claimed they were mostly communists, composed of ex-convicts and criminals; corporate America saw them as competitors for government aid money. In the end, the government sent the army to forcibly disperse the unarmed veterans and their families, using tanks, bayonets and tear gas, killing several of them in the process.

Sometimes, for the American war veterans, their greatest enemy is their own government.