Veterans Day was never a day celebrated in my home. The Fourth of July would come and go, but my family never went to fireworks displays. No flags adorned our front door or appeared on our car bumpers. You would think I was raised by un-American pacifists. You'd be wrong.
My mother was never a fan of the Vietnam War, but my father was a veteran of World War II. For him, giving up an inch of ground (that he knew from firsthand experience had been won at the expense of a lot of American boys' blood) was not something he was comfortable with.
My dad was a corpsman during the war -- he rendered medical treatment to Marines who made the landings from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. Patriotism with flags and fireworks, ceremonies and tradition -- it was all a little too phony for him. He'd removed too much shrapnel, sewed up too many guts, tended to too many dying kids his own age to put much value in such things. And deep in the throes of Alzheimer's, when he needed his country most, it was Medicaid that rendered him his last measure of comfort.
Why didn't my dad go to the local VA? It was full. My mother, his primary caregiver, had struggled through a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful recovery from heart failure. My wife, my daughter and I were living in a tiny house and we worked long hours for the modest income we earned from our small woodworking business. Sustaining another member of the family, especially one who required constant supervision, was simply beyond our capacity. My sisters, one in Canada and the other in California, were in similar circumstances.
So it fell to me to find a place where my father would be safe, fed and housed for as long as it would take for his disease to take him. A friend, familiar with the "system," counseled me to "dump" him -- take him to a busy urban hospital, sit him down in the waiting room without any means of identification, and walk away. The hospital would be forced to find him shelter. But that required me to desert my own father... I couldn't bring myself to do it.
My father was a complicated guy with many flaws, but he loved me and I loved him. In the end we were buddies and buddies don't leave buddies behind. Instead I found a place about a half hour from our home -- a "Medicaid mill," it took in people with disabilities and the elderly who lacked the means to support themselves. It was no resort, heck it wasn't even a nice place, but it was minimally adequate and the best place around that was still taking Medicaid patients.
The place smelled and the food was, well, terrible. There is little to recommend about Alzheimer's, but in that situation not remembering you're hungry and not recalling what you last ate would be kind of a blessing if you were my pop. He was a great cook in his own right and a lover of good food. In the end, it was a roof over his head. The staff loved him, and while he was ambulatory he had few demands and was always easygoing and cooperative.
That was in the winter of 2000. In November 2001, a stroke finally put my father out of his misery... and me of mine. It was a hard last couple years of my dad's life, very hard. But I can only imagine how much worse it would have been without Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
My pop was an FDR Democrat all his life. The fact that Social Security and later Medicare and Medicaid (he supported Johnson, he loved FDR) were there for him at the end was kind of an irony. Those "anti-poverty programs" were meant for others less fortunate than him. He had grown up in privilege, had lived a comfortable life right up to the last few years. It never dawned on either of my parents that they would one day be poor and dependent. They never quite adjusted to that reality and for my father at least, the fact that he was well into the fog of dementia was a relief.
This Veterans Day, we're hearing a growing chorus of Wall Street CEOs and Washington, D.C. insiders call for a "grand bargain" to reduce the federal deficit by cutting the so-called "entitlements" of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. In other words, they want to cut programs that keep old soldiers like my father from being dumped, and by making it impossible for families like mine to have a sliver of hope and an alternative to complete crisis, one far from ideal but at least adequate. That is what is at stake.
My question is, why would anyone trust the bankers who crashed the economy or the politicians who gave them unconditional bailouts to deal with our debt? They say they're for "shared sacrifice," but their version of sacrifice is one where they get more tax cuts while small business owners like me, our families, and most Americans get the shaft. That's not a "grand bargain," it's a grand boondoggle.
There is no question that Medicare and Social Security need our attention but not as bargaining chips in a game of partisan political one-upmanship. The stakes for millions of Americans today and millions more in the future are far too great for that kind of casual consideration. A good many Americans have paid for those programs with more than payroll deductions. They deserve better.
What to do? It's not that complicated. Start by ending the Bush tax cuts for the very rich. Reduce spending on military adventurism (my pop came around on Vietnam and would have been apoplectic over Iraq). Close off-shore tax loopholes and reduce the corporate welfare that pervades every aspect of our tax code. And when those things are done and the economy continues to gain momentum, we can take a breath and figure out the best ways to rein in health care costs without leaving our veterans -- or any American -- bleeding on the battlefield. If we do, there are an awful lot of aging warriors who will thank us on future Veterans Days.