Standing for the anthem won’t help veterans. Jobs, homes, and healthcare will

Maintaining some sort of military force is one principle that nearly every person of every political persuasion agrees with. Seemingly no one agrees what this force should be and what this force should do, but virtually everyone, short of a handful of extremists, agrees on the military being a necessity. Understanding this factor, it is hard to understand why veterans’ quality of life in the United States is so poor. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and healthcare issues–particularly mental health problems–are par for the course for veterans returning home. Given the pride that people in the United States claim to have for veterans, the way veterans are treated is atrocious–and Democrats should be leading on this issue.

On August 14, 2016, U.S. football player Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem, a song containing pro-slavery lyrics, to protest police brutality. After meeting with fellow NFL player and Green Beret veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick began to kneel, instead of sit, in protest out of respect for veterans. While Kaepernick’s cause was always to protest police brutality and racial inequality, his opponents wanted to depict him as disrespectful to the flag and, thus, to veterans as well.

However, kneeling for the national anthem does not violate the Flag Code. Having the U.S. flag on clothing, in advertisements, or on disposable food items (such as napkins) does. Not to mention that football players standing for the national anthem is not an old tradition – it originated in 2009. This was around the time when the Department of Defense started paying millions of dollars to the NFL for “paid patriotism”, according to a report unearthed by noted war hero John McCain.

Some people in the United States cannot accept critique of what they perceive as patriotism. Any criticism, it seems, disrespects what veterans fought for. Last month, a hometown acquaintance was speaking sanctimoniously about the issue, saying that people who protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem is metaphorically similar to slapping veterans in the face. When I politely pushed back, inquiring if he was aware of the history of NFL players standing for the national anthem, he shut down the conversation completely. He would later message mutual friends of ours, expressing how offended he was by my comments.

This response is par for the course. The same conservative folks who bemoan supposed “politically correct” people for being unable to receive criticism are the same ones who cannot withstand any dialogue about the flag. It was amusing to watch right-wing firebrand Milo Yannopoulos struggle to explain this cognitive dissonance. The sad irony, however, is the stark contrast between people’s praise for veterans and the standard of living that veterans actually face.

In 2011, the post-9/11 veteran unemployment rate was a whopping 12.1% nationwide. While the number has declined to 5.1% in 2016, “experts say the data can paint a misleading picture of veterans in the job market.” Much of this decline can be attributed to veterans taking low wage jobs; they might not be jobless, but their salary remains insufficient for their needs. One study showed that most veterans leave their first civilian job within the first year. The government does not track underemployment data for veterans.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given day. People of color are disproportionately affected by this, as well: “Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.” According to the Center for Disease Control, veterans are more likely than the general population to be homeless. Of all the homeless veterans, the majority suffer from a physical and/or mental disability.

In 2014, over 1.4 million veterans did not have health insurance. However, since then nearly half of a million veterans gained coverage from the Affordable Care Act, the same law that Donald Trump and the Republicans want to repeal. Most veterans rely on the Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospital system. However, this system is riddled with inefficiencies; one study found that over 300,000 people may have died waiting for VA system health care. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has noted, “Congress has provided neither clear guidelines on who is entitled to coverage, nor sufficient resources to cover all applicants [and in 2014] some officials appear to have responded to incentives to reduce waiting times by falsifying data.”

In addition to general health care discrepancies, veterans are acutely vulnerable to mental illness, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide, typically by firearm, according to the VA. A recent case involving a veteran assaulting an Iraqi restaurant owner in Oregon has reignited discussions of PTSD. As one out of every three women in the military is sexually assaulted, female veterans are disproportionately affected by PTSD. The resources to help veterans just simply are not in place.

In doing research for this article, one trope kept reappearing: how the crises veterans face mirror that of non-veteran civilians. This is not to say that veterans do not experience unique difficulties–they certainly do. However, poverty, homelessness, and a lack of healthcare are all issues that the general population faces. The lack of sufficient mental healthcare services in the United States seems to come up after every mass shooting (which is quite frequent). These are important issues for veterans and non-veterans alike.

Version 2

Photo captured October 22, 2017.

In 2009, comedian Jon Stewart hosted Iraq war architect Bill Kristol on his show to discuss the issues of the day. At one point, Stewart backed Kristol into a corner:

KRISTOL: “One of the ways we make it up to the soldiers, since they are risking their lives, we give them first class health care. The rest of us can go out and—“

STEWART: “—so, you just said, I just want to get this on the record—“

KRISTOL: “I feel as if you’ve trapped me…”

STEWART: “Bill Kristol just said that the government can run a first class healthcare system. And that a government-run healthcare system is better than private healthcare systems.”

Conservatives cannot claim that the government should provide first-rate services for veterans and simultaneously argue that the government cannot do anything right. While Kristol falling into Stewart’s trap is amusing to say the least, it highlights a bigger window of opportunity for democrats.

While Republicans ask, “How can you kneel during the national anthem in spite of the sacrifices of veterans?”, perhaps Democrats should reply, “How can you accept poverty, homelessness, lack of healthcare, and lack of good jobs in spite of the sacrifices of veterans?” I can understand that some people on the left are wary of appearing overly nationalistic, and others want to distance themselves from intervention-happy foreign policy. I can sympathize with those views–but championing veterans does neither. It builds on people’s goodwill toward veterans to craft beneficial legislation.

Progressive policies only stand to benefit from this smarter approach. If Republicans oppose increasing the minimum wage, Democrats should ask them why they think veterans’ wages shouldn’t be increased. If Democrats propose a single payer healthcare system, perhaps they should brand it “VeteranCare.” What senator could vote against that? I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek–and Democrats certainly should not make intellectually indefensible arguments–but the Democrats should use their positions of power to advocate on behalf of all citizens–veteran or not.

If all conservatives will do for veterans is espouse patriotic rhetoric, then progressives should propose real ideas. Not only is this good politics, but campaigning smarter will help real people. Supporting veterans does not mean one cannot combat nationalism run amok or reform U.S. foreign policy; it means expanding the social safety net. The sad truth is that veterans are hurting; merely standing for the national anthem will not change that fact. Veterans need better policy implemented.

 


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.