A National Shame

Memorial Day dates to 1868 and General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, who called for a day to honor fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. As on that occasion, this Memorial Day we pause to give thanks, grieve and consider the sacrifices that American soldiers have made for this country.
Undoubtedly this year politicians and others will use Memorial Day to talk about the situation in Iraq, perhaps even to bolster a particular position regarding the war. The occasion certainly invites solemn reflection on the sacrifices American men and women are making in Iraq and elsewhere. Yet it also begs for us to ponder the shameful treatment our soldiers have received over the last four years not at the hands of enemies, but at our own, and to renew our national compact with them.

Soon after the war in Iraq began, stories began to circulate of soldiers killed because they lacked proper protection. In December 2003 the Pentagon confirmed that at least 40,000 of its 130,000 troops then stationed in Iraq did not have the ceramic-plated body armor necessary to stop shrapnel. Likewise, widespread reports indicated that the vehicles in which soldiers traveled did not have adequate shielding against the improvised explosive devices used throughout the country. Some families began to buy body armor for their sons and daughters, because the military was not providing it. A year later, almost 20 months after the war began, the problem remained. In October 2004, members of an Army Reserve unit from Mississippi refused a refueling mission because their vehicles lacked appropriate armor. They called it a suicide mission.

These years have also revealed widespread fraud perpetrated upon unwitting new recruits by insurance salesmen with access to bases in the United States. According to an investigation by The New York Times, during compulsory briefings on personal finance, insurance salesmen would trick new soldiers into signing up for high-cost, low-benefit insurance, often without the recruits even knowing they had signed up for insurance at all. Provisions in the policies likewise made them nearly impossible to cancel. A Pentagon investigation into this scandal revealed not only that this had been going on for decades, but that Pentagon officials had known about it and done nothing. The Republican-controlled Congress largely supported the insurance lobby against demands that insurance salesmen be prohibited from working on military bases.

Because of a lack of new recruits, tours of duty over the last four years have sometimes been repeatedly extended. The military institutionalized such action with its stop-loss policy. When a unit is called up for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, even those service members who are near the end of their term of enlistment are forced to serve for the entirety of the tour. Said one such soldier in The Washington Post, What happened to the volunteer force? This is a draft. In March of this year Salon.com reported that even injured soldiers were being forced to redeploy, often without the physical examinations necessary to prove that they were capable of wearing their equipment and doing their job. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has now changed the normal length of an active-duty tour from 12 months to 15 months. The Pentagon has announced plans to call up 30,000 more National Guard personnel to serve in Iraq next year.

More recent reports have shown that soldiers’ travails continue even after they return to the United States. A four-month investigation by The Washington Post discovered that wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have been forced to live in squalid conditions, some of them for years, with inadequate care. Many are unable to leave because of bureaucratic red tape. According to the Post report, on average a soldier must file 22 documents with eight different commands in order to enter and exit the medical system.

The Bush administration has increased the amount budgeted for the Veterans Administration over the last five years, but these increases have by no means kept pace with costs. In 2005 the V.A. announced a $1 billion shortfall; as of this May, 400,000 veterans await disability benefits.

On this Memorial Day, to overlook these many unnecessary burdens put upon our sons and daughters would be reprehensible. Still, their sacrifices should not be used to reignite the flames of patriotism or to inspire the beating of breasts with partisan pride. It is a time instead for national self-scrutiny, shame and new resolve. We may disagree about whether we should still be in Iraq or whether we had sufficient cause to go there in the first place; but it is impossible to deny that as a country we are most certainly not supporting our troops.

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