Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Robert Bales Was No 'Lone Gunman'

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News on 19 March 2012.

Our country today is in the enviable position of being able to fight a gritty multi-front counterinsurgency far away in unfriendly and inhospitable terrain. And we’ve been doing it for over 10 years now. The average American hasn’t felt so much as a bump in the road for it. There has been no draft, no fuel rations, no chocolate shortages. When I served in Iraq, we used to say “the military is at war: America is at the mall.”

Since the recent murders committed by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in Afghanistan, the perpetrator as has been called “troubled,” “crazed” and other such adjectives. The military is probing for alcohol involvement. He received a medical exam prior to deployment but, no surprise, was given a clean bill of health by military doctors. He was injured twice and witnessed fellow soldiers maimed and killed on previous deployments. He was also reportedly having family troubles back home.

They’re looking for the reasons why Bales did it. Yet, none of these single things caused this incident on their own. All of these circumstances were caused by yet another circumstance: sending a man to Iraq three times and then to Afghanistan for a fourth tour.

It is true no one made him pull the trigger, so he should bear personal responsibility for his actions. Bales should be punished to the full extent of the law if found guilty.

But America shares in the collective responsibility for this incident. If you send young men and women off to war, they will not come back the same. If you send them off to combat every other year for a decade, they will not come back okay. War is an action for which there are all kinds of consequences. But because the average American only knows war as something that happens long ago or far away, it is easy to shake our heads and ask how someone could possibly do this.

In fact, the average American hardly notices we’re still at war. Blaming it on the “lone gunman” pushes away the collective national responsibility for the consequences of sending volunteers to war for ten years.

Soldiers returning from war are often accused of being desensitized from violence due to what they’ve experienced. In some cases this is true. But the average American at home is desensitized to the violence that combat veterans face. I can vouch for the fact that I very much feel the toll of what I experienced in Iraq. I think about it daily, sometimes when I don;t want to. I’m sure other combat veterans will say the same. But war and violence are something average Americans only experience on the evening news or watching TV series like “Homeland.” This is an enviable position.

As far as the military is concerned, no PowerPoint slideshow or sensitivity training will prevent these incidents. While I was in the Army, I participated in training sessions every week regarding professional and moral behaviors we all already knew. Despite legal arguments after such incidents, no one needs to be taught that torture or urinating on bodies is unethical. These classes weren’t given to teach us anything. They were given to provide cover for the government and leadership when such incidents do occur. They do nothing to actually prevent them.

The military has a culture that looks at the expression of grief as a sign of weakness. Those that seek help are not able to “hack it.” Of late, the military has improved in the provision of post-combat support services, but military leadership still allows a culture of denial to exist. The resources are there, but troops are not able to access them. The structure of the military also creates situations where one soldier can be sent to combat for four tours while others never go or deploy to support missions in places like Kuwait, Turkey or Uzbekistan.

Many of our troops have done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some have been wounded in action on multiple occasions. Everyone who went knows someone who didn’t make it back. Many saw friends die. Many suffer from invisible scars such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. Relationships with spouses and children have also been casualties. Of the first five years of my own marriage, I spent almost all of it away at war or training to go back. The memory of what happened “over there” leads many to divorce, to drink, to commit suicide. Or worse, such as this incident and others like it show.

America’s military is an all-volunteer force. Our military will bear any burden and make any sacrifice asked of them, including spending a decade at war. But we are in unchartered territory, in terms of how this affects our men and women in uniform. As such, this creates a greater responsibility by those that make military decisions to ensure our troops are not making sacrifices in vain and that their hardships are recognized. With more veterans coming home since the end of World War II to an unfriendly job market and greeted by proposed cuts to veterans services, this promise is not being kept.

Our political and military leaders shouldn’t shake their heads, let themselves off the hook and blame the “lone gunman.” We all collectively bear some responsibility for this incident. Unfortunately, this likely won’t be the last. Our soldiers and their families always pay dearly for the decision to go to war. They pay for it for the rest of their lives. Those who decide to send our troops to war and those that support them pay nothing, but they reap the benefit of a peaceful and secure life.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Dear Congress: How Much More Must Veterans Sacrifice?

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 15 March 2012.

At a time when over 2.5 million American men and women have been added to the rolls of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Veteran’s Affairs Committees of both the U.S. House and Senate have agreed to cap budget increases for the Department of Veterans Affairs. There is bipartisan agreement that despite America's having more returning veterans than it has had since the end of WWII, the recent end of the Iraq War, and an imminent drawdown in Afghanistan, the VA will have to meet this increase in need with a flat budget. Congress cannot agree on anything, but they agree that our newest veterans should sacrifice more for the country at a time when they need support the most.

Last week, I was informed by the VA that a record number of veterans have applied for GI Bill benefits, so many that it would take six weeks to process requests. This should surprise no one as multi-tour veterans such as myself leave the military after a decade at war and seek to enter the civilian world with a job market, never friendly to veterans, which has turned even more bearish since the 2008 downturn. Unemployment among young veterans is around 30%. Hundreds of thousands have been wounded or suffered health issues due to one or more combat tours. Problems with PTSD, TBI, depression, and alcohol abuse have developed into an unspoken suicide crisis among soldiers and veterans.

In a joint letter to the budget ‘Super-Committee’ signed by the chairmen and ranking members of the Veteran’s Affairs Committees of both the House and Senate, it was stated “we believe no constituency better understands the challenge America faces, and no constituency is better suited to, again, lead by example by putting country first.” The letter was signed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), and Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA). Veterans are being called upon by Congress to sacrifice for the country yet again. Both parties seem willing to let it happen.

America’s veterans are being thrown under the bus by those who are supposed to represent them, showing vets only get paid ‘lip service’ by Congress. None of these members, despite their committee assignment, ever served a day in uniform. The only member of the committee to ever serve is Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Yet, most of them represent military and veteran-heavy districts. It may result from having the most veteran-underrepresented Congress since WWII, with only around 20% ever serving.

Veterans have already sacrificed a great deal for the country when they wore the uniform, but now they’re being asked to sacrifice more after they’ve left and returned to private citizenship. The difference between veteran’s benefits and other benefits is that they’re earned and not given. They’re not awarded because veterans simply paid in to the system; they’re awarded because we fought, were hurt, and would have died for the country if called upon.

How much more must America’s veterans sacrifice for you?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

5 Veterans Making a Difference

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 7 March 2012.

For the first time since Vietnam, America has vets coming home. They’re not coming home to good times. Nationally, unemployment hovers around 8.5%. Among veterans, it reaches over 20%. Many are able to go to college using the GI Bill, but despite having years of work experience, veterans still find getting a job difficult. Some in Congress want to cut veteran’s benefits and shrink military pensions. Despite the abundance of flags, t-shirts, and stickers, veterans still face a tough fight.

These are five campaigners who fought for the country and continue to stand up for their fellow veterans:

1. General Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

After resigning as Army Chief of Staff after objecting to the Bush administration’s push against applying the ‘Powell doctrine’ in Iraq, Shinseki was appointed in 2009. Shinseki served as NATO commander in Bosnia and earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. Under his tenure, the VA has focused on addressing issues of Iraq/Afghanistan vets, tackling veteran’s homelessness, and implementing the new post-9/11 GI Bill.

2. Matt Victoriano, Founder of Veterans V.I.P (Voice. Influence. Purpose.)

Matt Victoriano served two tours as a Marine scout/sniper in Iraq. Since leaving the military, he travelled the country as part of the Veterans for American Power Tour, speaking at public and press events about the need for American energy independence, freedom from foreign oil, and new energy. He is currently organizing a ‘Veterans Justice Army’ to address veteran’s issues, unemployment, income inequality, and the injustice of banking bailouts while veterans sleep on the streets.

3. Patrick Bellon, Executive Director of Veterans for Common Sense.

After serving as an Army cavalry scout for the 4th Infantry in Iraq, Bellon worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Vet Voice Foundation. Veterans for Common Sense has a ten-year record of successful legal and policy campaigns which have resulted in increases suicide prevention and emergency services, improvements to VA claims processing, and positive changes to the handling of PTSD and TBI cases.

4. Glenn Kunkel, Louisville, Kentucky

Glenn Kunkel served two tours as a Marine infantryman in Iraq. As a military advisor to the new Iraqi army, he received the Purple Heart for injuries in two separate attacks. After undergoing extensive physical therapy, Kunkel has continued to serve as an energy security advocate for Operation Free, a coalition of veterans seeking to end American dependence on foreign oil. He also travelled the country as a speaker for the Wounded Warrior Project’s ‘Warriors Speak’ program, telling his story and that of other veterans to raise awareness of what they face.

5. Eli Williamson, Execute Director of Leave No Veteran Behind

Williamson, a Chicago native, served tours with the Army in Psychological Operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. LNVB is a non-profit that seeks to fill gaps sometimes left by government programs for veterans. They give financial assistance to veterans for educational programs and help them find transitional employment. Chicago Public Schools awarded LNVB a contract employing veterans to watch over children on their way to and from school.