What will we owe our veterans for his or her service? – Information – Occasions Document

What do we owe our veterans for their service? - News - Times Record

As we celebrate Veterans Day tomorrow I think of the hundreds of veterans I interviewed over the years. Many of you read those stories in my veteran column and are well aware of the sacrifices made.

These men and women and thousands of others went through a lot.  So what in return does our country owe its veterans? James Wright’s excellent book, “Those Who Have Borne the Battle,” goes into far more detail than I can here, but with the help of that book I want to take you through the ups and downs of veteran treatment throughout our history.

Responses to the question have varied greatly over the years. During Revolutionary War times the Continental Congress agreed there was a need to provide support for what they called “invalids,” and also to widows of officers.

How to pay for that was left up to the states, which, because that involved 13 different entities, made for an uneven and unreliable system.

Freedom was its own reward

As for healthy, uninjured Revolutionary War veterans, there was nothing. The feeling back then was that their reward for service was their being able to live in a new, free nation. 

Military service during this era was looked at as an obligation – they owed their service when called upon and that no real payment was necessary. The position of Congress at that time was that patriots should not expect special treatment.

Then years later those feelings began to change. Those Revolutionary War vets, now aged, needed help and by the early 1800s political parties felt the need to do something, and not just for officers, but for all who served. 

As noted in Wright’s book, in 1835 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the matter at the bicentennial of Concord saying, among other things, “To you (the veterans) belongs a better badge than stars and ribbons. This prospering country is your ornament and this expanding nation is multiplying your praise with millions of tongues.”

Wright notes that a feeling was now creeping across the country known as “heroic memory.” Monuments and cemeteries began to appear, honoring veterans from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

The first true military cemetery came about in Kentucky in 1847.  
Some states gave veterans land grants, pensions were expanded to all those who served for 9 months or more during the Revolution and were “in reduced circumstances.”

Under the 1818 Pension Act, 25,000 veterans filed claims, far more than the government expected. Then in 1832 the Congress extended coverage to all surviving veterans who had served 6 months. In 1836 coverage was extended to widows and with that, the idea of a grateful nation was in place.

In 1871, War of 1812 vets became eligible and later so did veterans from the 1846 Mexican War. In 1902 Congress authorized pensions for survivors of Indian Wars fought before 1858. A national unity of sorts was in full swing. America had developed a desire to help all who served, but then division set upon our country with the start of the Civil War which tore the nation apart.

In July 1862, Congress passed legislation to create what would become Arlington National Cemetery on what was once Robert E. Lee’s plantation along the Potomac River.

Lincoln consecrates battleground

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Civil War cemetery there saying, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Then in 1868 came Decoration Day, or as we now call it, Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor the “heroic dead” and “resolve to guard their graves with sacred vigilance” so that future generations would know of the price paid. By the way, here in the south Memorial Day was resisted because it was felt it was a Northern celebration. That later changed in the mid-1880s.

President reaffirms commitment

Lincoln, in his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to veterans, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

Benefit packages continued to improve and in 1890 Pres. Benjamin Harrison signed a pension bill.  “By 1905, 80 percent of living Union vets were receiving federal pensions,” writes James Wright and notes the figure of 20% in the south because of reliance on State action.

In 1919, following WW I, President Woodrow Wilson declared Nov. 11 as a day of national remembrance and a new organization was formed called the American Legion. Their purpose was to support veterans and families.  In 1938 it became an official holiday.

In 1921 Congress authorized the re-interment of an unknown serviceman at a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery and that same year created the federal Veterans Bureau, later changed to the Veterans Administration in 1930. In 1929 Congress agreed to appropriate money for Gold Star Mothers to visit their son’s graves in France.  

3 presidents take step backward

But then the tide of help to veterans took a step backwards during the Coolidge and Hoover administrations and was epitomized in Hoover’s statement, “The nation owes no more to the able-bodied veteran than to the able-bodied citizen.” However, in 1924 a “Bonus Bill” passed despite a Coolidge veto attempt.  It said bonus payments would be made to WWI vets in 1945.

But during the depth of the depression many veterans and their supporters sought payment earlier than 1945. Thus in 1932 vets marched on Washington and became known as the “Bonus Army.” Violence broke out and Hoover ordered them physically removed. Anyone know who was told to lead the effort? Wright tells us that Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, along with General George Patton, “used tanks and infantry with tear gas and bayonets to expel the veterans.”

When FDR took office he reduced veteran benefits and said, “No person, because they wear a uniform, must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries.” In 1936 he vetoed the bill to provide WWI veteran bonuses, but Congress passed the bill over his veto and by the end of that year 3 million WWI vets received their bonus.

Then came WWII, draft laws and 409,000 dead Americans, but a home front united in the war effort like never before or since. To pay for that war income taxes rose to “provide 13.6% of the revenue in 1940 … to 40.7% by the end of the war,” Wright says, as taxes rose and deductions disappeared. In 1943 a withholding system was approved. In 1939 less than 4 million Americans paid any income tax. By 1945 that number rose to 42 million.

On June 22 FDR signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” better known as the GI (Government Issue) Bill of Rights.  It provided for medical support, up to 52 weeks of unemployment coverage, and “an interest-free loan program for purchase of homes, farms or businesses … and a generous plan to support education or training for veterans,” notes Wright.

Then came the Korean War in June 1950 and another 37,000 dead Americans. Taxes rose again and in 1952 another readjustment act passed, but it restricted the eligibility requirements. And this war was different – we did not win – there were no throngs of people welcoming home the troops and even some VFW posts refused membership to some because they were not a veteran of a “war.”

Veterans felt betrayed for service

Then came Vietnam, a war that turned political and that resulted in another 58,000 dead. When these veterans came home they were unjustifiably treated badly. Some were spit upon, some called baby killers and many felt betrayed by the country they swore to defend.

There were no readjustment acts, no welcoming home ceremonies, just protests and ill feelings. I feel that if we learned anything from the Vietnam War it was that you don’t take out the dislike of the war on the people who fight it.

Today’s wars are not popular, yet we continually praise our returning men and women in uniform, as we should, in thanks for risking their future for those of us comfortably back here at home.

All this leads up to today’s wars – Gulf War I and II and the Global War on Terror.  Today, thankfully, most people highly respect our troops with ceremonies, wonderful heart-wrenching homecomings and several organizations have formed to help them readjust, like the Wounded Warrior Project.

But at the same time I personally ask myself, is it enough? How connected are we to our brave warriors? Ask yourself, how has the current decades of war affected you personally? I’ll bet not much, unless you have a loved one in the fight. Food is plentiful, gasoline prices dropping and there are no new taxes to pay for the war. We can get shoes, sugar, coffee, tires, whenever we want. There’s no sacrifice on our part.

Disconnected with today’s warriors

But that’s my point as I close. We are disconnected with today’s warriors. The wars entail nothing on our part, we are not invested. As 23 year Army veteran Andrew Bacevich puts it in his book, “Breach of Trust,” “They fight, as we watch.” He poses ways of fixing that, but I doubt they’d be very popular, but I’ll also bet they’d be very effective.

What if the draft were again put in place? What if our taxes were raised 15% to pay for our wars? How would that go over with the public?

My guess is we’d again see protests. But it would get us connected. We would now be with them, making a contribution, sharing in the sacrifice, and I’ll bet much more engaged with Washington when talk of warring in some other country comes up.  

In my opinion, America can better serve our veterans if we get involved, in some way, in any way really. The Walter Reed Hospital scandal of a few years ago and the Veterans Administration scandal over year-long waits for doctor appointments for our veterans is an embarrassment to our nation. We must do better. They are there for us, and we must be there for them.


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