The World War II generation shook up the old idea that only the upper class went to college. Indian, Hispanic and African-American veterans became plaintiffs in lawsuits to open up the right to vote. Women, having violated traditional sex roles to keep the economy going on the home front, were disinclined to surrender their new status.
The NAACP had put the Civil Rights Movement on hold for the duration of WWII except for demanding access to all jobs in the military. Because the GI Bill quickly overwhelmed historically black colleges, a series of lawsuits was begun that, over time, integrated professional schools, graduate schools and colleges, and finally culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, the beginning of the end of segregation by law.
This is not to say that discrimination ended. What ended was the willingness of non-whites to suffer quietly. Litigation was slow and changes incremental.
By 1946, New York and parts of bordering New Jersey recorded over 67,000 zero down payment home loans guaranteed by the GI Bill. Less than 100 went to non-white veterans. In the same year, the University of Pennsylvania—thought to be the least discriminatory school in the Ivy League—enrolled all of 46 black students in a student body of 9,000.
Change was slow and painful and came mostly in the courts through the ’50s, but when the children of the WWII generation decided in the ’60s and the ’70s it was time for direct action, they were building on the education and experience and—yes—the courage of their elders.
After WWII, the threat of nuclear annihilation confined wars between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to proxy wars in former colonial states. These are the wars the baby boom generation grew into, and they lacked the moral clarity and near unanimous support of WWII. So did the veterans.
The makeup of the veteran population has changed since WWII.
Through the Vietnam War, the numbers of persons serving in the military were under two percent of the population, although much higher in Indian country. About 90 percent of Indian Vietnam vets were volunteers and over half served in combat.
A VA report in 2006, taking in Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, showed Indians still serving out of proportion to their numbers in the general population. Interestingly, Indians are overrepresented in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, but underrepresented in the Army and Air Force.
Six percent of veterans are women, a number that has climbed ever since WWII. Ten percent of Indian veterans are women.
When the U.S. went to an all-volunteer military after Vietnam, the number of persons serving dropped to under one percent of the general population and the number of Indians serving dropped as well because of a more rigid requirement of a high school diploma. According to the VA, educational attainments of newer Indian veterans look more like the general population than in previous generations.
With fewer people serving in the military, fewer veterans are being elected to Congress, where responsibility for VA funding starts. Congress also has the constitutional authority to declare war, an authority that has fallen into disuse since WWII
In the years after WWII, over half of the people serving in Congress were veterans. While it seemed like everybody did military service in what we now call the Good War, in fact it was just under 10 percent. Twice that among American Indians. The number of veterans in the population dropped rapidly in the Cold War years, but their numbers in Congress continued to grow, peaking at about three quarters of Congress in 1971.
Since 1971, the numbers of veterans serving in Congress have been declining. They currently stand at about 20 percent veterans in a body charged with picking which wars to fight and what resources to devote to veterans afterwards.
The Vietnam War was highly controversial and when men of military age during Vietnam began to assume positions of power and authority, we saw the rise of the American chicken hawk. The chicken hawks supported the Vietnam War to the last drop of other people’s blood while they had—as one of them put it—“other priorities.”
Some voters are offended to see persons who opposed the Vietnam War, such as Bill Clinton, elected to high office, but more are offended by persons actively in favor of the war who could not be bothered to fight.
Willard Mitt Romney spoke out in favor of the war he didn’t fight and it was perhaps no surprise that none of his five sons found time to pull a hitch either.
George W. Bush was able to score a spot in the Air National Guard, where he was able to avoid the war and learn to wear a flight suit all at once.
This election cycle, several chicken hawks are contesting to make the most bellicose noises in favor of sending other people to fight for their country. The only veterans in the entire field were Republicans Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jim Webb, and all of those candidates have fallen by the wayside.
President Obama likes to brag that VA funding is at a historic high. That, in itself, is not terribly meaningful, because funding would be at a historic high because the amount of business is. More meaningful facts are that under Obama the VA budget has risen 68 percent and the backlogs that were going up have changed direction.
While VA funding is supposed to be exempt from the budget madness of sequestration—across the board cuts thought to be so idiotic they would force Congress to agree on targeted cuts—veterans still get hammered as sequestration forces federal, state, and local governments to cut payrolls. Those jobs normally carry veterans’ preferences, and the downside to those preferences is that the middle-aged people being turned out are disproportionately veterans. Wal-Mart can only hire so many greeters.
Veteran unemployment could be chalked up to unintended consequences of congressional gridlock, but it’s hard not to see the political impact of the rise of the chicken hawks in the perverse history of Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Virginia) update of the GI Bill.
Webb, a Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran and father of a Marine, introduced the new GI Bill on the day after he was sworn in. It quickly drew public opposition from President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain. Their concern was that richer education benefits would harm retention rates.
The Congressional Budget Office scoring predicted that the new GI Bill might decrease retention but it would increase recruitments by similar numbers.
Still, Bush threatened a veto and McCain did his best to bury it in committee, which is a time-honored way to kill a bill without anybody having to go on the record opposed.
Bush finally agreed to sign it in a package deal to continue funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars outside the normal budget process for 2008. McCain did not come off the campaign trail to vote for the compromise; Barack Obama did.
Obama attacked McCain for turning veterans’ education into a partisan issue. McCain responded by noting that Obama “did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform.” While most of the politicians obstructing Jim Webb’s bill were chicken hawks, Sen. McCain can never be tarred with that brush.
Still, it was a bit much when President Bush invited McCain to the signing ceremony as if it were McCain’s work product rather than something Webb had to do the heavy lifting to accomplish.
Looking back, most observers would agree that the fight over military retention was really the same fight as the original GI Bill. It was all about the money.
For Webb, the new GI Bill was a major reason he wanted to be in the Senate, but the other was ending the Iraq War, something he was not able to accomplish. Webb is not exactly a pacifist, having returned from Vietnam with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, the Silver Star and the Navy Cross. Having done what he felt he could do, he did not stand for reelection.
The combination of chicken hawks and budget hawks is potentially deadly for veterans. Before Obama was elected, the immediate costs of war were off budget. The costs of caring for veterans could not be moved off budget because of all the infrastructure to be supported. So budget hawks were always lurking around VA expenditures.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has emerged as a lobbying force for veterans that belies the comparative youth of their leadership when compared to the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
IAVA was key in getting VA health funding running one budget cycle ahead, so that veterans’ health could no longer be compromised by an extended budget fight the way it’s been so long at Indian Health Service.
IAVA expended a lot of energy getting the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act of 2015 to the President’s desk, but veteran suicide remains their number one issue.
Indian Veterans do not appear to have a lobbying presence in Washington specific to them, but there are regional organizations doing outreach for veterans programs and pushing the VA for culturally competent services for Indian vets. Among those are the Native American Veterans Association on the West Coast and the Southwest Native American Veterans Association focused on Arizona and New Mexico.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a central hub for homeless veterans on line with links to other government programs.
The Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Act of 2001 was apparently less than comprehensive, because the problem has not gone away. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) re-introduced legislation to deal with homelessness among veterans in 2013. The bill attracted 4 Democrats (Murray of Washington, Murphy of Connecticut, Blumenthal of Connecticut, Brown of Ohio) and 1 Republican (Burr of North Carolina) as co-sponsors but never got a floor vote.
Meanwhile, an Internet meme has arisen that says the U.S. should not provide homes for any refugees from our wars in the Middle East while there are homeless veterans. The claim appears to be that veterans are the excuse for the U.S. disregarding its treaty obligations to take in refugees. Sounds like a plan to keep veterans homeless and refugees out at the same time.
On an issue closely connected to homelessness, President Obama signed the Returning Heroes Tax Credit and the Wounded Warriors Tax Credit in 2011, allowing businesses that hire veterans a credit of $5,600 or, if the veteran is disabled, $9,600. Homelessness and unemployment are as related as homelessness and substance abuse.
Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden have founded the Joining Forces Initiative to pull together resources that support military families.
Rumbling underneath all these challenges veterans face—homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, suicide—is the social experiment the U.S. is running on the one percent who choose to defend the country. How much PTSD is generated by deploying to a combat zone every other year indefinitely? PTSD cases overrun the VA treatment efforts now.
Will the incidence of PTSD continue to grow? Will the symptoms decline over time without treatment? What kinds of treatments are most effective?
We don’t really know the answers to any of these questions. As long as only one percent of the population serves but we keep extending old wars and starting new ones, this social experiment moves forward into unknown territory.
It would be ironic if veterans survived multiple deployments to combat zones and then fell victim to the budget priorities of the chicken hawks who sent them.