The trouble with Veterans Affairs


I am currently engaged in working on proposed legislation that would seek to divert combat veterans experiencing interaction with criminal justice systems from jail to an appropriate treatment facility in those cases where a link between PTSD and the offense can be established.

Opinion: The trouble with Veterans Affairs

As chair of this work-group (at least for a time) I have been struck by the overwhelming response from both sides of the aisle on this issue. From the DFL Chairs of Public Safety and Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate to the Office of Norm Coleman, the bi-partisan interest is undeniable and heart-warming. In addition, from Corrections and the Police Chiefs Association to the non-profit and faith-based sectors, as well as, all branches of the military, the systemic buy-in is truly phenomenal.

I view this great level of buy-in as stemming from a deep desire to reconcile national divisions that have never really been dealt with years after the end of the conflict in Viet Nam. This leads to some very awkward situations. Bubbling beneath the surface are a myriad of incisive questions. For example, the contention, “I oppose the war, but support our veterans”. Now, many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan believe the war to be justified.

Last year, John Kerry stated that many people entered the military out of economic necessity. He received a great deal of criticism for that remark. Yet, it was true. 25 years ago, in one of the last Company-sized units to which I was assigned, there were 2 men out of 200 (enlisted) who had any college at all under their belt–me and one other guy. I had about 1 year. We were exceptions. Judging from my younger brother’s experience (recently completed 9 years service), this has not changed a great deal.

So, when folks in civilian life who oppose the war (predominantly well-educated) tell veterans they “Oppose the war, but back veterans” there is an echo of Viet Nam in the background. Right or wrong? Well, it is what it is.

The reality is that we live in an Imperial nation and the majority of our citizenry enjoy the benefits of that imperialism. We are very dishonest about this. As the most powerful nation on earth we seem unable to decide when and where to exercise our military power. Should we have intervened in Rwanda? Should we intervene in Darfur? If we were to intervene and become mired in a conflict of two or more years duration, then what?

What we really want is to enjoy the fruits of imperialism while not having to visibly confront what is done in our name…for cheap gas, for easy travel, for a higher standard of living than most in the world.

Outside of the St. Cloud Vet’s Hospital there is a monument to veterans of all conflicts, marked by conflict. To the right side of the memorial to the fallen in Viet Nam is a marker for all those who have died after that conflict–nearly as many as in that war…so where did they die? We don’t want to know and we don’t ask.

Long after the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over our Veterans Hospitals will be full of men and women who will never live normal lives. Few will visit them, from the left or the right. These men and women deserve two things; honesty and respect. That is how we honor them.

This Fourth of July I will remember the men and women I have known, from my own and other generations, and try to search for honesty in the political dialogue around veterans issues. As for the diversion legislation I am working on now, well, I hope this will spare a couple of hundred veterans from a life of being tossed aside. There are over 200,000 veterans in jail in the United States today…an additional 200,000 are homeless. As a people, this should strike us as truly the greatest shame of all.