When I sat down to write this post, I had planned to say a few things about current veterans’ organizations and ask where the new generation of veterans fits in. However, in doing my research on past veterans organizations, I found that veterans issues have been rife with problems since the very founding of our country. Which makes my question even more pertinent: where do we fit in?
It was Veterans Day of 2011, the year that I commissioned, that I first set foot inside our local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. As I had always imagined, it was smoky and kind of dingy. Aging veterans greeted each other with a handshake and a beer. I was also offered a beer and spent some time listening to the vets exchange stories, in between getting pelted with questions about today’s military. I was struck that in my mid-twenties I was easily the youngest person in the room, by a few decades.
One deployment later and all of a sudden I’m being called a veteran as well, which is the weirdest feeling. I have found that I am not overtly attracted to the VFW or the American Legion Post down the road. I also found it odd that I would receive requests for money from them, but never an invitation to stop by. However, I do enjoy spending time with fellow veterans of the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), because of shared experiences, places, and ideas. As all veterans have, really. So I began to wonder where I fit in, and, by association, where my generation fits in.
The first veterans’ organization in the U.S. came after the American Revolution, and it is a tale of two disparate groups. On the one hand, you have the Society of the Cincinnati, named after the Roman citizen-soldier of that name, where membership was restricted to officers serving in the Continental Army during the war. Militia need not apply. The Society had a powerful group of founders, such as Henry Knox and Benjamin Franklin, but served more as a social club for officers than as an advocacy organization (Knox really screwed his men after the war, buying out the very plots of land that they had been given as reward for their service).
And if there was ever a group that needed advocates, it was the veterans of the seven-year American Revolution. Their new government had tossed them a pretty raw deal by cutting promised pensions and creating a maze of red tape to even get those pensions that were left. An estimated 3,300 veterans of the Revolution actually received a pension. Most were left with poor health, a distant family, and very little money. Many had the land that they had been promised, but some had to sell the land just to get by. Localities took care of their veterans only slightly better, with many areas auctioning off their veterans’ care to the lowest bidder. Small wonder, then, that vets threw up a giant middle finger to their government in rebellions like Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 and the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. The emotional scar from the nation’s mistreatment of veterans would last into the mid-1800s, as pension disputes lasted into the second and third generations of a veteran’s family.
Perhaps this is why the veterans of the Union Army after the Civil War weren’t going to put up with the terrible deal their predecessors had been given. Also, there were an astonishing two MILLION Civil War vets. Yeah, that’s two million votes, if you’re sitting in Washington, D.C. (Those in our nation’s capital only see things in terms of votes or money). What’s more, those vets galvanized, forming the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. Man, talk about clout. The GAR pretty much ran local and national politics for the next twenty-five years. In many places, you couldn’t get a job unless you were a member of the GAR, which meant that you had to have served in the Union Army during the war. Bet stolen valor was wayyy more common. But vets were now a political priority, because they forced themselves to be. However, the downside to this is that vets suddenly become political fodder. Sound familiar?
It was World War I that brought about the VFW and the American Legion, who dedicated themselves to looking out for ALL veterans, not just those of a particular war. These organizations brought forth the political power to pressure the U.S. government into caring about veterans issues. Like, ACTUALLY caring. The Veterans Bureau was formed in the inter-war period and was perfect from the get-go. No. It wasn’t. The first director actually defrauded the whole organization and fled to Europe. Go figure. However, they turned it around and it was performing admirably by the time of World War II.
This didn’t mean everything was better. Oh hell no. About 25,000-30,000 veterans from WWI descend on D.C. in 1932, demanding a bonus that has been promised them since 1924. They occupy the mall, set up shop, and bug the hell out of Congress. Surprisingly, Congress isn’t a fan, and calls in the police. “Lolz,” say the veterans of the Meuse-Argonne and Belleau Wood, and proceed to go anything but quietly. In fact, they don’t go at all, which causes President Hoover to call out some Army units, led by good ol’ Doug MacArthur, ironically. Some people say Hoover gave the order to clear the Mall, some people say MacArthur did. Regardless, someone said “go.” Mac decides he’s facing communists (because it’s easier when we just label people we don’t like) and proceeds to clear the Washington Mall at bayonet point. Pretty much a low point in veterans affairs.
WWI and WWII provided the country with millions of veterans, the levels of which we hadn’t seen since the Civil War, and so veterans’ issues have continued to always be on the table, which brings us up to the present day. Over two million men and women have deployed in support of GWOT since 2001. This is not a sizeable representation of the current population, but the number will continue to increase as it does not seem that we’re out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia just as fast as we thought.
The traditional vets organizations have not been able to reach the younger generations of vets as they had in the past. And it does not seem as though there are organizations ready to jump into their places. Team Red, White, and Blue is a new veterans organization that focuses on reconnecting vets with their communities. Likewise, Team Rubicon is a veteran-focused and led relief organization. Neither of these groups are politically-minded or built to lobby. Which is actually pretty refreshing, in my opinion. Most GWOT vets tend to be more disillusioned with politics than their peers.
Is my generation of veterans going to have a voice? Can we have a voice, or are we too disparate, too jaded, too snarky, and too bored by politics? We had better figure it out soon, because according GWU Law Professor James Ridgeway, veterans benefits issues do not typically peak until forty or fifty years after the end of a conflict. Batten down the hatches; we’re in for a long ride.