Op-Ed: We owe a big debt to veterans — and should pay it

A warm Sunday night in Hartford, August 7, 1932.  Several dozen men and women–exhausted, dirty, hungry– trudge into the city after the long trip from Washington,  D.C.  They have just made history.

Along with 45,000 other military veterans and their families, they camped for several months to press the federal government for long-promised aid.  Specifically, they want the immediate release of cash payments (the Bonus) promised to them after World War I.

Op-ed submit bugOn this trip, they fail: the so-called Bonus Army could not compel Congress to vote for the pay. Instead, they were violently rousted from their tent city by armed troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur.

For the returning veterans, however, the fight is far from over.

These were the Depression years, with two million men and boys tramping the roads or hopping the freights in search of work. Many of the unemployed were workers-turned- soldiers who had expected jobs when they returned from European battlefields.
It’s a historical fact we don’t care to acknowledge: when U.S. workers are hurt by economic crises, veterans hurt more.  As far back as the Revolutionary War, former soldiers have had to mobilize, and sometimes riot, in order to get paid.

At the turn of the 20th century, Civil War veterans were still being found dead in Connecticut’s forests and alleys. Coroners cited alcoholism or exposure, but often the real killer was society, neglecting its own.

By 1932 the calls for social insurance, health care, and guaranteed income were impossible to ignore.

Even though the original federal law stipulated that veterans would not receive their bonus payment until 1945, in Connecticut and across the country they were demanding it immediately. The Bonus had broad public support, and the veterans’ rationale was persuasive: Soldiers had been paid 33 dollars a month while in the army, and the bonus was seen as the difference between their pay and what they would have earned as factory workers back home.

The vets contrasted their plight with the U.S. munitions industry which had made billions of dollars during the war, “a despicable group of citizenry who waxed rich while America’s manhood groveled in the filth and corruption of the battlefield,” argued Arthur Pease, a resident of the Newington veterans hospital.

Today, veterans face many of the same obstacles as did the survivors of the so-called Great War.  Despite the recent passage of a bill which funds reforms in the Veterans Administration, former and active service members are still affected by injuries they received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many live with untreated traumatic brain injury, undiagnosed PTSD or Military Sexual Trauma.  Some suffer environmental poisoning from U.S. shell fragments made of radioactive material.

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) has initiated The Right to Heal project, designed to address these issues, the ones that don’t often reach the front page.  IVAW also works with Iraqi human rights groups for reparations from the U.S. government for the human and structural damage it inflicted on Iraq as the devastated country tries to rebuild its civil society.

The IVAW is long way from its goal.  But as the Bonus Army demonstrated, there can be no surrender in the nonviolent campaign to repair the long-term damage of war.

On June 17, 1932, the U.S. Senate shot down the Bonus bill. Undaunted, the veterans came back to Washington again and again each year to win approval for the cash payments.  In 1936, Congress overrode Franklin D. Roosevelt’s veto and passed the legislation.

Steve ThorntonThe precedent set by the Bonus campaign was more far reaching than the weary Hartford veterans could ever imagine.  In 1944 Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights, a landmark effort which provided college funds, mortgages and job training to almost 8 million World War II veterans.

If we want to stop arguing over how expensive veterans programs are, maybe we shouldn’t start any more wars.  In the meantime, there are still big debts to pay.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.

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