On Monday we'll hear a lot of Memorial Day speeches about honoring our fallen soldiers and their disabled comrades. On Tuesday some of the politicians giving those speeches will try to cut benefits for them and their families.
In the words of Ben Franklin, "Well done is better than well said." The nine million veterans who currently receive Social Security benefits would probably agree.
Cutting benefits is no way to honor the fallen or those who came home with their bodies permanently damaged. It would be an act of profound ingratitude to doom them or their families to a life of increased deprivation. Yet that's exactly what these politicians are trying to do.
This morning I read a report called "Social Security: Serving Those Who Serve Our Nation," and my thoughts kept returning to two military heroes. The first was my maternal grandfather, Col. John L. Temple, who was permanently scarred by mustard gas on the battlefields of World War I. The second was my uncle, Lieutenant John Andree Temple, an Army Air Corps pilot who died at the age of 24 in World War II.
My grandfather was born in 1875 and was in his fifties when my mother was born. As a battlefield officer he was much older than most of the soldiers under his command. His already-aging body suffered terrible burns from the gas (photographs on the Internet show just how horrifying those burns could be). He eventually recovered and lived a long life, but spent the rest of his years in pain. Until his death he remained a handsome and compelling figure with a command presence -- so much so that it took a while before people noticed the redness and irritation of his skin, or the way his eyes tended water and became infected.
Col. Temple was luckier than many of the soldiers wounded by this early chemical weapon. He was able to continue his military career, and then to work throughout the Southwest as a railroad detective for the Southern and Pacific. There he began purchasing Native American artifacts for a few pennies or dollars each, carefully noting each item's details and providing details about its creator. "The last of the Chemehuevi weavers," one entry sadly notes.
My grandfather was John L. Temple the Third, or Fourth, or maybe the Fifth - he didn't care much about such things - and he broke generations of tradition by refusing to pass his name on to his son. (My French grandmother probably didn't care about that tradition one way or the other.) It was a typically American act of rebelliousness, or maybe it was just old-fashioned frontier contrariness since he only changed the baby's middle name. Col. Temple was faithful to duty, honor, and tradition in many ways, but he was born in a covered wagon headed West and nobody was going to tell him what to do.
His son, nicknamed Jack, died in World War II. He died after taking a new bomber out for its first flight in the South Pacific. Apparently his plane's engines were sold to the military even though manufacturer Curtiss-Wright knew they were defective. (Curtiss-Wright's senior executives were fired and a general went to prison as a result of Sen. Harry Truman's investigation. Arthur Miller's play All My Sons is based on this incident. )
Jack was a brilliant photographer whose works were exhibited in the 1939 Worlds Fair. His diaries and letters reveal an imaginative, unorthodox personality with a sensibility that might have felt at home in the Beat movement of the '50s or the counterculture of the '60s. He wrote that he wanted to reject the enslaving social norms of career and family so he could wander the planet without obligations.
These are the ambitions of an idealistic and rebellious young man, of course, and they might have changed. But the fact that Jack never married or had children also means that his death didn't leave anybody penniless and in need. For many families of the fallen, Social Security is their only protection from a life of poverty.
Which gets us to that report, which was released on Thursday by Senators Mark Begich of Alaska and Jon Tester of Montana. "Some politicians think the way to balance the budget is to cut veterans' benefits, or services like Social Security and Medicare," said Sen. Tester. "They're wrong." Added Sen. Begich: "Current talk about cutting social security benefits and destabilizing the economic security of our veterans undermines the sacrifices they have made for our nation. It's a disservice our veterans don't deserve."
Some of the report's findings are genuinely surprising. Nine million veterans currently receive Social Security benefits, and 35 percent of the people who receive Social Security benefits are veterans and their families. Most of the children who have lost a parent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars receive Social Security and, sadly, there are more than 4,000 of them.
Take some time this Memorial Day and read the report. You'll meet the family of Army Chief Warrant Officer Christopher C. Johnson. You'll also meet disabled hero Sherman C. Gillums, Jr., 87-year-old former Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery and his wife Amelia, and 90-year-old ex-seaman Will Parry. All of them rely on Social Security.
For the survivors, life goes on. My father served in World War II without injury. My paternal uncle, Jerry Eskow, was wounded in hand-to-hand combat, but fully recovered and became a director and teacher who guided many young actors. His death last year has left a void in our lives. Col. John L. Temple lived into his late nineties and saw astronauts walk on the moon. We shared hotel rooms on a cross-country trip when I was 14 and he was 90. "I don't like color television, boy," he told me on that trip. "It's not as realistic as black and white."
Jack Temple lives on in the personalities of his siblings and their descendants, in the dedication to social justice he instilled in his little sister, and in his striking photographs.
Even the Chemehuevi tribe, whose lost art of weaving my grandfather once mourned, is clinging to existence.The "Ute-Southern Ute Ethnologue" of 2009 describes the tribe, who once lived near the Oasis of Mara in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, as "near extinction." Less than five people still speak their language, but one of them is in his fifties and is making recordings to preserve its sound. for future generations. The Navajo Native American Veterans Association includes a link to the Chemehuevi tribal government on its website, which suggests that members of the tribe are among our nation's veterans.
You won't read the stories of Colonel John L. Temple or Lieutenant Jack Temple in this new report, and nobody will mention their names from a podium. But you don't need to hear their names. There are many families, many sacrifices, many stories. This Memorial Day we should remember and honor them all.
Then we should do the right thing for them, and for all the other soldiers and families just like them, by ensuring that they receive the security they were promised back in 1935. That promise was made to the American people before a generation of soldiers like Jack Temple and the Eskow brothers went away to war, some never to return.
Please note: This post was written with assistance from Social Security Works and Strengthen Social Security, the authors of "Social Security: Serving Those Who Serve Our Nation."
The report was cosponsored by the American GI Forum, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. (my grandmother, a Gold Star mother, proudly displayed her star in the window on Memorial Day); Blinded Veterans Association (mustard gas can cause blindness); the National Association of American Veterans; the National Military Family Association; Paralyzed Veterans of America; the Union Veterans Council, AFL-CIO; VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association; Vietnam Veterans of America; and VoteVets.org.
Follow Richard (RJ) Eskow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjeskow