Killing U.S. Troops Slowly
Editor's Note: Some Bush administration officials have expressed shock at the mistreatment of Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed and other medical centers. But this scandal has many antecedents, including the neglect shown to many veterans who served in Vietnam and in the first U.S. war with Iraq.
In this guest essay, writer and political organizer Michael O'McCarthy explains why the latest disclosures shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise to the Pentagon or the White House:Twenty-five years ago, March 14, 1981 Jim Hopkins, Marine veteran of Vietnam, born on the Marine Corps birthday of Nov. 10, drove his army Jeep through the glass doors and into the lobby of the multi-million dollar, showcase edifice of Wadsworth VA hospital, at Los Angeles, California. He did so to protest the gross, willfully negligent treatment given US veterans within the VA system, specifically, those veterans of the US war in Southeast Asia, aka, the Vietnam War.
He fired rounds from his AR 14 into the official pictures of then-President Ronald Reagan and ex-President Jimmy Carter. For emphasis he then fired his .45 caliber handgun and a shotgun screaming that he was not receiving the medical attention needed. Hauled from the hospital by law enforcement, he screamed into the cameras that his brain was "being destroyed by Agent Orange."
That sent both a shockwave and a wake-up call through the U.S. and became a clarion call to thousands of veterans who felt the very same as did Hopkins.
Ron Bitzer, director and founder of the L.A.-based Center for Veteran's Rights, and I took up his case. My specialty was dealing with vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) who had come into conflict with law enforcement due to their illness.
Hopkins' case gave national voice to three major issues for vets:
1. The failure of Reagan's administration to investigate the damage caused by Dow Chemical's and Monsanto's dioxin-based defoliants spread all over Southeast Asia known as Agent Orange, Blue and other quaint names – and its refusal to treat vets and their families for its damaging effect on both, especially the obvious appearance of birth defects of children born to the vets.
2. The refusal to acknowledge the illness of PTSD and to investigate its damage on vets and to provide appropriate treatment.
3. The callous and insulting disrespect shown the vets by Reagan and his efforts to cut both the benefits of the vets and to close their outpatient treatment centers.
After being released from inpatient treatment from the VA hospital where we had him transferred from the L.A. County Jail, Hopkins went on a speaking tour to vets. Despite our best efforts to help him Hopkins died on May 17, 1981, with an open liquor bottle and empty pill bottle found next to his body.
The news of his death spread across the country, sparking a sit-in of the Wadsworth VA lobby by veterans, who had come to view Hopkins as a hero. As Reagan alternately ignored and then ridiculed the veterans while the VA proclaimed its innocence of neglect, the protest grew until it became a hunger strike led by highly decorated Vietnam combat veterans.
The hunger strike drew mass coverage by the U.S. and world news. In the face of the aroused public, Reagan ignored calls for investigation, but held off forced eviction. When we rejected the government's poor-faith negotiations, Reagan called in the Federal forces.
But we were prepared and within days were camped out in front of the White House and had forced meetings with various congressional Veterans committees. Fearing that any moment one of the vets would die and would trigger an armed response by the many outraged veterans across the country, Congress finally agreed to negotiate a compromise:
The veteran's strike would end after 53 days and Congress would over-ride Reagan so that the Vet Centers would remain funded and open; there would be scientific and medical investigations into both the effects of the dioxin defoliants and into the illness of PTSD.
But despite it taking so long for the government to address the issue, the substandard quality of care in the military and VA hospitals was not news. In 1976, Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July was published, a full five years before Hopkins's protest. In this book, Kovic, a paralyzed combat veteran of Vietnam, documented, in graphic literary style, the mistreatment of vets in both hospital systems. But nothing changed.
In 1989 Oliver Stone made Kovic's book into a movie featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Tom Cruise playing Kovic. But neither the Congress nor the Presidency changed the continuing ill treatment given veterans.
Then under Reagan's Republican successor George Herbert Walker Bush, the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, which extensively used depleted uranium weapons. Vets came home from that U.S. victory complaining of various kinds of poisoning, both from the depleted uranium and the suspected effects of chemical warfare allegedly used by Saddam Hussein's forces.
The illnesses came to be collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome, and like the earlier response to illnesses related to Agent Orange, the military and the VA immediately began denying any causal relationship to the vets' complaints and those weapons. In other words, nothing had changed since.
Now, after all these years, when we look at the scandal of Building18 where the Washington Post reported that "part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold" and that "signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses," we know that still, nothing has changed.
Today it is undeniable that those who mastermind those callous, destructive wars against the poor people of the world have the very same callous disregard for the health and welfare of our working and poor people sent to fight their wars. In a nation where profit rules over healthcare how can one avoid the reality that this government cares not for its people but only the power of profit? It no longer can.
The war against the people of Southeast Asia was a war based on a President's lie: an attack on the US in the Gulf of Tonkin that never occurred. It is in that way akin to that of the current President; based on the lies of an obviously mentally incompetent madman far more concerned with the false righteousness of his crusader's mission and as it suits his petroleum industry masters than concern for the American people.
As the great anti-war movies "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Paths of Glory," "Johnny Got His Gun," "Coming Home," and "Born On The Fourth of July" have illustrated time and time again: governments use poor and working people as their cannon fodder, discarding those that survive as they do their junk military weaponry, while the manufacturing engines of war, profit and outlive war.
For over four years news stories have addressed the Bush-Republican cuts in the VA budget. Simultaneously, the dollar amount spent by Bush-Republicans has risen to an astronomical figure of over $400 billion.
Correspondingly, the profits of the military-industrial-media complex have grown exponentially with the war budget increases. Simultaneously the number of injured veterans has outgrown the VA's negligently conceived plan of treatment and as a result. This is in keeping with the malevolent attitude of Bush-Cheney…the two are married in purpose.
The calls for the impeachment of Bush, Cheney, et al, because of their malfeasance in office, deliberate lies and misuse of government services in pursuing their war of petroleum profit and their acts of war crimes, have done little to move Congress into action.
However, nothing has been as clear as the total and systemic neglect for the well being of the average American citizen than the outrage that continues within the military medical system and that of the VA.
Why have these systems not been fixed as the politicians clamor for reform time after time? It is more than just denial! There is a far more profound question to be asked about this systemic maltreatment:
Why would a Congress, which functions as the chief lobbyists of a "for profit healthcare system," appropriately see to the delivery of the best example of socialized medicine? Why is it that every time the harbingers of economic doom speak of reform they talk of cutting the social welfare programs of Medicare and Social Security?
Because the system is geared to fail; its failures hidden under the flag of patriot zeal until there is disclosure of its gross human casualty.
The truth is that Reagan Republican administration, the chief proponents of "for profit" Trickle Down Economics and its quisling Congress did not move until faced with the threat of a popular uprising led by Vietnam vets.
The conditions at Walter Reed are but symbolic of an entire system of malfeasance and mistreatment as rotten and antihuman as when we took on and defeated Reagan 25 years ago; as fetid and of ill purpose as the wars that produce them.
In virtually every appearance by elected politicians when they speak of the current war publicly, they call out to "support for our troops." Yet they refuse to address that which is killing them. The war itself.
And roused by these hucksters the pathetically deluded, self-injuring American public adorns their cars with "Support Our Troops" stickers while refusing to understand that they are in fact supporting our troops with lip service as their own government is killing them slowly.
With more war in the planning as I write this, let me suggest that ruling power, especially the reactionary power of Bush-Cheney, will never relent unless it faces overthrow by democratic, yet undefeatable force. That time has come again. Or again, nothing will change except this time matters will worsen.
Michael O'McCarthy is a poet, writer and political organizer. He can be reached at: Opolitique@aol.com
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