“The patriot’s dream is as old as the sky, it lives in the lust of the cold callous lie.” - Gordon Lightfoot, Musician, Songwriter
America is a beautiful country with some ugly habits. One of our worst traits is how our soldiers are treated. We have developed a protocol of lying them into war, and, subsequently, lying to our vets about how we will care for them when they get home. We tend to raise our young under a furled flag and with the sound of bugles and drums and they learn to trust our colors. When they come of age and we ask for their service, they believe their government and the political leaders sending them into conflict, and that, sadly, is their mistake.
Because politicians find it easy to betray our service members.
Our culture has become very skilled at ginning up false causes for invasions and wasting the honor and patriotism of our young on lies. Politicians, and military leaders like the once-honorable and late Gen. Colin Powell, fall in line behind the cobbled-together and cooked data to create a rationale. There were no WMDs in Iraq, and he knew it, just as there was no risk of Vietnam leading to a global surge of communism to threaten the U.S. Those lies were justifications for going to war to plunder resources like oil and keep domestic economic engines running to build weaponry and military hardware.
So, off you go, son. Do your patriotic duty. Maybe there aren’t WMD and it’s possible Ho Chi Minh won’t end up in the White House, but we can’t risk either of those things, can we, boy? We hope you are properly convinced that you are protecting the democratic rights of your fellow citizens, but if you figure out the truth, it won’t really matter. Nothing you can do about our decisions but obey orders. This big military, economic, geo-political machine is gonna roll over you and keep the world safe for capitalism. But at least we’ll honor you and take care of you when you come home broken.
No, we won’t, and we mostly don’t.
When our soldiers walked the jungles of Vietnam, our government was so concerned about their safety we sprayed them with Agent Orange defoliant, a chemical herbicide designed to destroy jungle forests, which has also killed or maimed 400,000 U.S. troops, about eight times the number that died in combat. The 11 million gallons sprayed from aircraft has also affected an estimated 4 million Vietnamese with generational birth defects and cancers. In the ensuing decades since the war ended in 1975, about 2.8 million vets are dealing with terminal diseases like multiple myeloma, prostate cancer, leukemia, Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s disease, respiratory cancers, and soft-tissue sarcomas. The total Vietnamese injured or killed by the dioxin in Agent Orange is believed to be around 4 million.
But neither manufacturer Dow Chemical, nor the U.S. government ever accepted responsibility. As U.S. vets began dying of various diseases, the Veterans’ Administration had no real interest in listening to their claims. Thirty thousand troops had to sue and got an inadequate settlement that was only funded from 1984 to 1994 and did not sufficiently cover health care. The court ordered agreement with Dow and the federal government was $197 million dollars and 105,000 vets applied for assistance; only 52,000 received compensation of just over $3800.00 each, which is a low dollar value to place on any life. A new program provides vets harmed by Agent Orange a maximum of just over $3100 a month, depending on how they have been disabled by the chemical. Not exactly a major increase in the value of soldier.
And now there is yet another battle for vets.
During the U.S. invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, the military again exposed the people who served to deadly chemicals by operating what are generally described as “burn pits.” No records were kept of how many, or locations, but there was a widespread practice of putting toxic chemical wastes from medical supplies or vehicle parts into holes in the ground, covering it all with jet fuel, and setting it ablaze. The poisonous smoke traveled for miles and physicians have said as many as 3.5 million U.S. troops were exposed and have diseases connected to the fumes. These include various cancers, lung, and respiratory diseases.
The U.S. Senate was on the verge of passing a new law to provide health care for those vets, who now confront everything from cancer to hypertension along with the other health issues described. The measure, titled Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) act, would spend $278.5 billion over 10 years to provide care for those who served. The maximum benefit would be $3,332 a month for life. The amount is a grain of sand in the Iraqi desert when compared to the $2 trillion Americans have spent on the Iraq War, and the average of $300 million a day it cost us to occupy Afghanistan for 17 years, which was a $2.3 trillion dollar bill to taxpayers.
Our Post 9/11 Era vets are once more on the verge of becoming casualties, though. Political games in Washington may cause them further casualties, and even victimize Americans completely disconnected from the military. While Republicans and Democrats were negotiating to finalize passage of the $52 billion dollar CHIPS bill to ensure microchip production and create 100,000 new jobs, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and recalcitrant West Virginian Chuck Manchin were hiding out and creating a reduced, but worthwhile version of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill.
The compromise measure, after word got out, pissed off Trump’s party of senators. The poor darlings felt that they had been betrayed because they had agreed to pass the CHIPS bill, which will politically help the president and the economy, but while they were doing what’s right, Schumer and Manchin were doing what the GOP thought was wrong. The resultant bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, doesn’t need Republican votes to pass, but the oleaginous Kyrsten Sinema, putative Democrat of Arizona, has not said whether she would support it. Without her, a Republican would have to cross over and vote for billions to reduce climate change and lower costs of pharmaceuticals while not raising taxes, except on corporations. Schumer has promised a vote on the Inflation Reduction Act before the August recess. Manchin claims it is the most important energy independence bill ever put before congress.
As the Senate prepared to take a vote that would send the veterans’ health care bill to the president, there was an event at the USO where politicians were invited to help prepare care packages to send troops serving overseas. This seemed like a fine time to talk about what the government was going to finally do for those exposed and harmed by the toxic burn pits. Instead, Republican Senators Rick Scott of Florida, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, all jumped on Twitter and dispatched pictures of themselves working with the USO while also gratuitously praising troops afield.
“I was honored to join [the United Service Organizations] today and make care packages for our brave military members in gratitude of their sacrifice and service to our nation,” Senator Scott tweeted.
A matter of minutes later, Scott and his GOP colleagues, including their majority leader Mitch McConnell, delivered more than 40 votes with a straight political face to blow up the bill to care for Iraq and Afghanistan vets, a measure the Republican caucus had previously approved. Their only justification, though unspoken, was because their political feelings got hurt by Schumer and Manchin’s private negotiations. Undoubtedly, they wanted representation present to mangle any agreement that might hurt their corporate donors.
Not to worry, though. Would-be Democrat Sinema is likely to come riding in on her duplicitous and lobby-fed horse to save the day. Without a Republican backer on the Senate floor, her vote is needed to reach 50 for passage on the Inflation Reduction Act, and it hardly seems likely she will run with the Democratic herd. Sinema reportedly does not like the bill’s provision to tax carried interest as income, instead of as a delayed deduction, which will raise $14 billion. Her love affair with private equity firms, who have donated generously to the Arizonan’s campaigns, means she will likely demand changes or vote against her own party, even though those alterations to the bill will do nothing more than protect the oversized salaries of CEOs who rely on the carried interest to nudge their pay scales from just obscene to vulgar.
Meanwhile, the fate of sick and dying Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans remains in the political ditch, and another group of Americans are also about to get marginalized by this petty politicking. Senator Susan Collins, yet another befuddled and angry Republican, who is from Maine, thinks the Schumer-Manchin compromise will destroy chances to pass a bill to codify gay marriage into law to protect it from our Supreme Court marauders. Collins, whose consistent inconsistency during her tenure, had been working to gain bi-partisan support for the same sex marriage measure. She sounds now like she’s going to pull her little red wagon home and pout because her party didn’t know a meaningful piece of legislation was being constructed without their approval. The GOP apparently is the only caucus that gets to jam law down the throats of the opposition.
Do not be surprised if the politicians get what they want, and our vets do not. Our government and culture have become very good at delivering false praise while ignoring those who have sacrificed with military service, and even suppressing the facts about extenuating horrors caused by war. While Iraq and Afghanistan vets are fighting for health care to deal with their service in George W. Bush’s elective Mideast wars, there is an entire generation of vets from his father’s Persian Gulf War that are suffering along with their genetically mutated children.
You have almost certainly never heard of Goldenhar Syndrome, but you ought to know about what it causes. Cranio-facial defects occur in babies born with Goldenhar. These genetic anomalies leave the eyes and the face out of alignment, as if one side of the face had been pulled down by gravitational force. Ears are often undeveloped or missing. The disfigurements of these veterans’ children are often horrifying and can also complicate the nervous system through the spinal column. Among veterans deployed to the Gulf War under George H.W. Bush, Goldenhar occurred 14.7 times out of 100,000 births while the figure was only 4.8 out of 100,000 among the non-deployed troops. In November of 1995, Life magazine did a ground-breaking report on birth defects being endured by children of the elder Bush’s “Desert Storm,” and the narrative and photographs are mortifying.
Service members of that war suffered many of the same exposures as those that are harming the vets struggling to get the current health care coverage from congress. In fact, Desert Storm risks might have been even more pernicious. In addition to the nerve agent depots that were exploded, the munitions used in Southern Iraq’s Basra region were armored with depleted uranium, one of the strongest substances in the world, which was used to penetrate steel. The resultant explosions spread uranium dust throughout the landscape, and probably account for many of the diseases Gulf War vets are confronting. They were also ordered to take experimental vaccines for anthrax and botulism, which had not been approved by the FDA.
After years of denying Desert Storm vets’ health problems were related to their service in the Persian Gulf War, congress approved funding for claims under a category called, “Gulf War Syndrome.” The qualifying symptoms for benefits were rashes, diarrhea, cognitive problems, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle pain. Unfortunately, as late as last year, 30 years after that conflict, the V.A. was denying an estimated 90 percent of claims of veterans plagued by aftereffects of their service. Even more troubling, is the complete denial that birth defects of their offspring are connected to exposures to toxic fumes and chemicals.
There is a huge body of data, though, pointing to genetic problems for the children of Gulf War vets, regardless of the V.A. and the Pentagon’s historic denials of a causal relationship. Dr. Maria Rosario Aranetta, whose 2003 report studied 2 million birth certificates from veteran families, reported increased issues with renal agenesis, which is the absence of one or both kidneys, a heart defect known as aortic valve stenosis, and hypospadias, a genital urethra defect in boys born to veteran women who served in the Gulf War. A year later, the Journal of Epidemiology, surveyed 30,000 Gulf War vets in the United Kingdom and discovered increased risks of defects in the digestive and Musculo-skeletal systems of children born to fathers who had served. The other anomalies were a rise in miscarriages and malformations of genitals and urinary tracts.
In a statistically damning report presented to the VA in 2003, the Birth Defect Registry presented irrefutable data on more than 3000 children of Gulf War veterans. The numbers show their offspring had a significantly higher risk of deformities than those of non-Gulf War vets. There were 31 potential chemical and environmental causes of non-genetic birth abnormalities, which were significantly higher for the children of Gulf War vets in 28 different categories. Those included disabilities ranging from Goldenhar to upper limb size reduction, motor delay, heart murmurs, seizures, respiratory infections, acne-like rash, stomach disorders, pneumonia, speech problems, asthma, food sensitivities and a broad range of others including sleep disorders and an affliction that causes babies to walk on their tiptoes.
Not only is the government denying there is a connection between Gulf War service and these afflictions, but it has also tried monumentally to cover up the problems and suppress journalistic interest. Shortly after the heart-wrenching Life magazine report, the Pentagon issued what became known as the Wallner Memo, which was benignly described as “Identification and Processing of Sensitive Operational Records.” The memo offered guidance on how to create responses on “bombshell reports” on five categories related to the claims of harm to vets and their children. The DoD and Secretary of Defense were effectively censoring the media from publishing anything that “generate[s] unusual public/media attention” or “embarrass[es] the government or DoD.”
Such behavior, of course, defies logic and morality. A congress and a military and government that votes to spend trillions on war ought to be able to consider a few billion to care for those who shouldered the risk. We are quick to call our soldiers heroes when they leave their families and board planes for war zones, but we are apparently just as skilled at ignoring their pleas when they return physically and psychologically broken to our shores. I am inclined to agree with comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who has been a leading voice in trying to get fair treatment and adequate health care funding for veterans. His anger ought to be the anger of every citizen in the land, and if it isn’t, Stewart’s assessment of our country at an appearance in Washington this past week, is as accurate as it is tragic.
“If this is America,” he said. “America is fucked.”