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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Spitting on Veterans

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As someone who opposed the Vietnam War and didn’t spit on a single soldier, I have never believed those stories about servicemen in uniform encountering a tsunami of expectoration upon returning from Southeast Asia. In the ’60s, our contempt was primarily aimed at the commanders-in-chief, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who sent more than 58,000 young Americans to their deaths in that immoral and unnecessary war. Also earning our contempt were a few specific soldiers who intentionally committed atrocities, such as Lt. William Calley, who ordered the murder of as many as 500 My Lai villagers, mostly women, children, infants and the elderly.

But for veterans who were lucky enough to make it home, we knew our country had put them through horrors that would take them a long time to get over. The last thing we wanted to do was to make their lives harder. They were kids we’d grown up with who weren’t as fortunate as we were to be protected by college or marriage deferments, which in those days were the primary means through which we avoided their fate.

Disrespecting the Troops
Exaggerated claims about the inhumanity of those who oppose wars toward those who fight them are intentional distortions to try to discredit protesters as unpatriotic. But, in fact, war boosters are often the ones who disrespect our troops the most.

The most obvious examples are the so-called “chicken hawks,” President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who avoided military service during Vietnam but now support open-ended war as long as someone else’s children or young parents are being sacrificed.

Unbelievably, the Bush administration opposes—and has even threatened to veto—an updated GI Bill for Iraq war veterans to give those who risk their lives in Bush’s war the same full college benefits the original GI Bill provided for veterans of World War II and Vietnam.

Even harder to believe, Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, also opposes the new GI Bill. McCain was a prisoner of war during Vietnam. Unlike Bush and Cheney, McCain actually knows the overwhelming sacrifices made by American soldiers sent into war by politicians.

We can’t really explain McCain’s opposition. We can only report the way he tries to explain it. McCain says he opposes full college benefits for soldiers who serve “only” one enlistment because too many of them might leave the military to attend college. In the course of that one enlistment, a soldier could be sent into active combat in Iraq or Afghanistan as often as three times.

The Bush administration has no qualms about sending the same soldiers back into combat again and again. Psychiatrists from Veterans Affairs say that many soldiers have not dealt with the effects of their last time in combat before they are sent again.

That may be the reason why new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers jumped 50% in 2007, with nearly 14,000 newly diagnosed cases among the 40,000 troops that have been diagnosed since 2003. McCain wants to make soldiers “earn” full college benefits by re-enlisting. Risking your life with a piddling three combat tours isn’t enough for him. You should be required to make it back alive at least six times before we let you go to college.

This entire debate confuses me because I live near a college campus. There is an Army recruiting station right down the street. From all the signs and flashing neon lights in the window, I thought the whole purpose of the Army was to provide educational benefits.

Of course, the other reason Bush and McCain say they oppose increasing educational benefits is because it would simply cost too much. Why, over the next 10 years, the college benefits to our soldiers could cost $2 billion annually, they say.

You know what else costs $2 billion, that enormous amount of money it would take to provide a college education for our military veterans? According to the Congressional Budget Office, that is the cost of one week of the Iraq war. McCain built a political reputation over the years as a maverick by occasionally breaking from his fellow Republicans. But in order to win the Republican presidential nomination, he appears to have made a conscious decision to run for what the Democrats now call “Bush’s third term.”

In fact, by opposing the new GI Bill, McCain has broken with some Republican supporters of military veterans, including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, another Vietnam veteran, and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, former secretary of the Navy.

Military service today should be a bridge to a college education, just as it was for veterans of World War II and Vietnam. Instead, Bush and McCain are spitting on the service of our returning soldiers. It’s time they stopped.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.