The final step when I reported to the Army intake center in Roanoke, Va., in February 1966 was an interview with a doctor. That day is memorable not only as my first one in the Army but also one observing draftees being inducted who were illiterate; others couldn’t speak English.
In a desperate attempt to increase the ranks of its fighting men in Vietnam, the Army had lowered its mental requirements. Physical qualifications were a moving target as I discovered during that interview with the doctor. A young man was brought over for an expert medical evaluation to determine his ability to serve. The specialist held up the boy’s arm bent permanently at a 90-degree angle and asked with obvious doubt, “Is this enough to disqualify him?” The doctor’s reply was a disgusted “yes!”
Looking back, I felt that at least one person had enough sense to send that draftee home. The Army could not enlist someone physically disabled. Yet, what happens to our combat veterans disabled mentally or physically?
I was disgusted by the May 20 article in this paper, “Report finds combat troop discharges rising sharply.” The AP article quoted from an investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette: “The number of soldiers discharged from the Army for misconduct has risen to its highest rate in recent times, and some are wounded combat troops who have lost their medical care and other benefits because of other-than-honorable discharges.”
This is morally unacceptable to me, so I researched the full article through the Internet. The report got worse. Combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are among those being discharged. Several top generals are quoted saying how much discipline counts to maintain an effective military and that our troops are important. Convinced? Me neither.
PTSD diagnosis is the tip of the iceberg. Combat damages and ruins untold thousands. We’ve only named it recently. After their release from Union and Confederate armies, many Civil War veterans simply “walked into the west,” unable to adjust to civilian life after observing the slaughter of the battlefield. Nothing compares to it.
Perhaps the most thoughtful words in the report were spoken by Lenore Yarger, a veterans advocate near Fort Bragg, N.C. She said, “We have gotten very efficient at getting people to fight wars but are not prepared to deal with the aftermath.”
In my opinion, we have never been prepared to deal with the aftermath. Also, I firmly believe that once a young man or woman is sent into combat we can never do enough for their maintenance afterward. To my thinking, it is unconscionable to discharge anyone and deny them benefits if they have faced combat. What is the value of discipline once you’ve sold your soul?
Estimates range from $5 trillion to $10 trillion spent on defense in the past 50 years. The Obama administration has increased funding for veteran support and there are still waiting lines sometimes hundreds of days long. In my lifetime, no president’s administration has done enough to maintain our veterans.
In Rachel Maddow’s book “Drift,” she details how every president from Johnson to the present has diligently tried to avoid congressional approval needed to send our troops into combat. Corrupting the power of their “commander-in-chief” role, presidents have outright lied and bent analyses to have their way with our military. It is an equal-opportunity corruption shared by presidents from both political parties. And worse, staunch defense-minded politicians, a euphemism for hawks, have even argued that since we have invested so much in our military we might as well use it. Fight on.
Obviously, this conundrum demands a change in thinking. Active citizenship requires each of us to question our country’s penchant for war. We must ask a tough question. How much defense do we need? Not how much can we spend on our military to keep our economy strolling along.
In my view, for every dime we invest in new weapons we should spend millions on the humans ruined by war. And we must ask, what is the cause for dismissal from service? Can anyone know the contribution of combat?
Shame on us.
Bill Ellis is a local author and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.