In its second major misstep with veterans in as many months, the Obama administration gave our representative organizations another opportunity to step up on our behalf and defend us from misguided government action.
The meek response from the national leadership of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) stood in stark contrast to the strong statement from the American Legion’s national commander, David K. Rehbein. At issue was the recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report that profiled returning veterans as potential recruits for right-wing extremist organizations and urged law enforcement personnel to recall the military service of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
This seemed like an easy call for veterans service organizations (VSOs), much like the recent White House proposal to charge wounded veterans’ insurance providers for the treatment of service-connected injuries that prompted universal condemnation from veterans and non-vets alike.
The American Legion, an organization open to all servicemen and women regardless of combat experience, stood alone among these leading VSOs in its commander’s criticism of the DHS report. Mr. Rehbein cautioned, “I think it is important for all of us to remember that Americans are not the enemy. The terrorists are.” VFW and IAVA, organizations dedicated to combat veterans, apparently could not see what all the fuss was about. It was left to civilians like Powerline blogger John Hinderaker to expose the empirical emptiness of the report, while even then IAVA sat on its hands with lips sealed.
Glen M. Gardner Jr., the national commander of the VFW and a Vietnam veteran, actually defended the report. “The report proves that DHS is doing its job, and that’s to protect America and Americans.” Had he analyzed it, Mr. Gardner might have observed that the report’s empirical flimsiness and overtly political language rather suggests that the DHS is issuing law enforcement advisories without viable evidence-based justification.
Furthermore, as the senior representative of more than 2 million American combat veterans, Mr. Gardner ought to consider that many of them, despite their heroism and success, are already facing stigma and stereotypes in their homes, schools and workplaces. There is real damage in contributing to the perception that veterans should be feared and monitored, and Mr. Gardner should know better.
One wonders what it will take for the members of the VFW to confront their leadership for betrayals such as this. In 2008, the VFW’s Political Action Committee endorsed John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, in his re-election campaign for Congress against 28-year Army veteran Bill Russell, who had served in Operation Desert Storm, Kosovo and Iraq and heroically participated in rescue efforts at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. This endorsement came despite the congressman’s infamous repeated slander of Marines in Haditha, Iraq, at a critical point in the war.
While at the time Mr. Murtha proclaimed that “there was no doubt” about the guilt of the Marines involved, seven of the eight accused Marines were exonerated and the prosecution against the final defendant remains indefinitely postponed. No matter, Mr. Murtha continued to rant against the war and used Haditha as evidence of our inability to win Iraqi hearts and minds.
These wounds were reopened by the recent decision by former Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter to give Mr. Murtha the Navy’s highest award for public service. This decision sparked an outcry among veterans and led to a current online petition garnering more than 55,000 signatures demanding an apology from Mr. Murtha or a retraction of the award.
Mr. Murtha’s official Web page lists the 2008 endorsements, where one can read from the VFW letter, “In addition to comments received from VFW leaders in your state, this endorsement is based on your strong support for veterans, national security/defense, and military personnel issues.” In other words, because you continue to serve as the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and the defense subcommittee, and you continue to direct taxpayer dollars to programs we support, we endorse you for re-election.
This attitude is pervasive, evident in methods used by the VFW and IAVA to endorse or evaluate political leaders and candidates for office. In IAVA’s 2008 “Congressional Report Card,” issues such as health care, GI Bill, mental health, and support for homeless veterans were taken into account, with no consideration given to whether the representative’s actions had a positive or negative effect on the war effort and the troops serving in combat.
These benefits are earned, and appreciated. But they are a poor substitute for the faith, encouragement and support we deserve from our Congress while fighting our nation’s enemies. If we are only concerned with obtaining benefits, and believe that appropriations are the only relevant metric with which to measure a legislator’s performance, then we deserve Mr. Murtha, IAVA and the VFW.
On July 4, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke these famous words: “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no man is entitled, and less than that no man shall have.” It is time for veterans’ organizations to recognize this mission, and abandon the petty pandering that continues to stand in the way of real progress and honest representation. It is up to veterans to force the VSOs to represent us, or to replace them.
Gabe Ledeen is a former Marine captain and two-tour veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a freelance writer and senior fellow with Vets For Freedom.