Category Archives: veterans

On Memorial Day in Normandy, Evidence of What We Won–and Lost

Photo: Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service

On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.

For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond  comprehension–save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.

At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was twelve; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.

Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast.  And he’ll gladly trade war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.

Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war—half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves—are outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists–and a place in history—with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate  the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck.  They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.  

I was struck by how different Pierre’s old age in France is from mine in the United States—not because of anything that happened during the war, but because of what happened afterwards. In the postwar years, along with most other European countries (victors and vanquished alike), France implemented guaranteed pensions as well as national health care. Under a social welfare system that epitomizes what’s derisively referred to in the U.S. as the “Nanny State,” the average worker in France retires at age 60 on a full pension with complete medical care and various tax breaks. (And that’s after years of working 35-hour weeks, with two-month vacations.)

And what about aging Americans–including the waning ranks of the “greatest generation” that came before mine, who helped free the French and the rest of Europe, and then financed the continent’s recovery through the Marshall Plan? What can we expect? The most minimal of public pension systems, which was created before the war and has been under attack ever since; a private pension system that is now a shell of collapsing structures; personal savings decimated by Wall Street; and a partial and increasingly expensive health care system. More and more of us plan to work quite literally until we die–that is, if we can manage to keep our jobs, since we have little protection against age discrimination and no job security of any sort. In America, the war fought by “Citizen Soldiers” made our world all too safe for wealth and corporate power, often at the expense of the very men and women who won it.

In France, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has been chipping away at the Nanny State. His latest scheme—to raise the retirement age to 62—brought mass demonstrations across the country last week, and threats from the still-powerful unions. But even if Sarkozy’s latest initiative succeeds, as it well may, France’s elders will still be better off than their American counterparts have ever been.

Here in the U.S., we face a political juggernaut—most recently manifested in Obama’s “debt commission”–intent on cutting Social Security benefits, raising the costs of Medicare, extending the formal retirement age from 65 to 67 and beyond, and further tying our retirement and that of future generations to the vicissitudes of the securities markets through 401Ks and IRAs. Few voices are raised in protest against this attack on old-age entitlements. In fact, it seems to be one of the only true examples of bipartisanship in American politics, now that the Democratic Party, which once fought to build what social safety net we have, has collapsed into the arms of Wall Street. I expect it will progress with no more difficulty than “welfare reform,” in which another Democratic administration gutted our meager provisons for the poor.

In a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks declared that “America’s new culture war” is a “struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise–limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.” If only this were remotely true.  In fact, that battle was lost long ago—if it was ever fought at all.

Perhaps I only imagine that Pierre’s life is more tranquil than mine because he enjoys the security that comes with “European-style statism,” while my own well-being remains “determined by market forces.” But I don’t think so. Sixty-six years ago, as a small boy playing pilot in the lush green trees of a Washington spring, I could not have guessed that Pierre, waiting in his farmhouse nestled in the hedgerows of Normandy for the jeeps and tanks of the First Army, would someday become a symbol not only of my country’s greatest victory, but of its saddest defeat.

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Reader Response: “Good Xtians”

Quite a few readers commented on my post on South Carolina’s Lt. Governor Andre Bauer, who said that poor people are like “stray animals” who shouldn’t be fed because it just encourages them to “breed.” Reader Stefan Thiesen’s comment consists of the definition of  Psychopathy: “a personality disorder whose hallmark is a lack of empathy.”

I especially like this response from Charlie Ehlen, a Vietnam Vet and retired machinist from Louisiana, who wrote about my post on his blog Charlie’s Corner:

Now keep in mind that this guy, Andre Bauer, claims he is a “good Christian”. He is running for the office of governor in his state also.

This “wonderful” person is on record as saying that we should treat poor folks like stray animals and not feed them. You see, according to this “good” guy, the poor folks will just come back for more if you help them. We should, I suppose, just let them fend for themselves, and if they die, well, so much better for the state. Yep, that way there would be fewer poor folks to clog up the system. Oh, and more for those who aren’t poor.

It amazes me how these miserable damned jackasses can run around America claiming to be “good Christians” and then say crap like this and the media just lets them walk away from this sort of comment.

Here again is another “fine” example of what I continue to call an Xtian. There is NO Christ in the Xtianity they practice. There is none in what they preach either.

Now, some will jump on me as I am an old heathen, but I do know some bits of the Christian story. Jesus mentioned helping the poor at different times in the New Testament. He did not, that I remember, say to not feed them and just treat them like stray animals. In one story Jesus even went so far as to show socialist tendencies. I refer to the story where he told the rich man to sell all his belongings and give the money to the poor. Not being a follower of any religion, I do not have the chapter and verse in front of me. Any real Christians who might be reading this can look it up I am sure.

I, too, have often had occasion to denounce this kind of hypocrisy from those who proudly identify themselves as “good Christians.” Over the years, the right has tried, with some success, to gain a monopoly on the word Christian as shorthand for a set of narrow-minded and punitive conservative beliefs that are anything but.

However, I’m the grandson of a minister, and while I’m not religious myself, I have no desire to criticize people who are inspired by Jesus’s teachings to do some genuine good. (Quite a few of them are at work in Haiti right now.) That’s why I like Charlie’s terminology, which immediately serves to separate the real Christians from the Xtians.

Dog Day Afternoon

You may have already come across these videos of dogs greeting soldiers coming home from tours of duty, which have been making the rounds on the web. But you really can’t see too much of these reunions.

Thanks to Huffington Post for putting up this compilation for Veterans’ Day. I’ve been writing about how the United States is failing its vets; it’s good to see that at least their faithful pups are always there for them.

Veterans Die from Lack of Health Insurance

From the web site of Physicians for a National Health Plan comes this summary of a new study on American veterans’ limited access to health care. These figures are an estimate, extrapolated from an earlier study–but if they are right, they dwarf the number of deaths from combat, and rival the suicide figures I wrote about earlier today.

A research team at Harvard Medical School estimates 2,266 U.S. military veterans under the age of 65 died last year because they lacked health insurance and thus had reduced access to care. That figure is more than 14 times the number of deaths (155) suffered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008, and more than twice as many as have died (911 as of Oct. 31) since the war began in 2001.

The researchers, who released their analysis today [Tuesday], pointedly say the health reform legislation pending in the House and Senate will not significantly affect this grim picture.

The Harvard group analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2009 Current Population Survey, which surveyed Americans about their insurance coverage and veteran status, and found that 1,461,615 veterans between the ages of 18 and 64 were uninsured in 2008. Veterans were only classified as uninsured if they neither had health insurance nor received ongoing care at Veterans Health Administration (VA) hospitals or clinics.

Using their recently published findings in the American Journal of Public Health that show being uninsured raises an individual’s odds of dying by 40 percent (causing 44,798 deaths in the United States annually among those aged 17 to 64), they arrived at their estimate of 2,266 preventable deaths of non-elderly veterans in 2008.  

As the PNHP piece points out, many veterans do not have free access to government-funded health care through the VA system:

While many Americans believe that all veterans can get care from the VA, even combat veterans may not be able to obtain VA care, Woolhandler said. As a rule, VA facilities provide care for any veteran who is disabled by a condition connected to his or her military service and care for specific medical conditions acquired during military service.

Woolhandler said veterans who pass a means test are eligible for care in VA facilities, but have lower priority status…Veterans with higher incomes are classified in the lowest priority group and are not eligible for VA enrollment.

So after these men and women risk their lives in the military, we throw them on the mercy of the private system of medicine-for-profit, which is touted as a cherished part of the American way of life. It all gives a whole new meaning to dying for your country.

War Wounds: VA Ignores an “Epidemic” of Veteran Suicides

This Veterans Day, tributes continue for the 13 soldiers killed last week at Ford Hood, gunned down by one of their own. It was a shocking and terrible event, which warranted the outpouring of sorrow it inspired. Yet every single day, on average, more current and past members of the U.S. armed services die by their own hands than were killed on November 5 at Fort Hood.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ own calculations (which it tried to conceal from a CBS News probe, and from the public), there are “about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.” That’s well over 6,000 a year. In addition, the VA admits that “suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.” Rates are highest among young men in their twenties, veterans of our current wars. And these numbers do not include suicides by active duty members of the military. In 2008, these numbered nearly 250 (Army 128, Navy 41, Marines 41, Air Force 38)–five every week.

There are no public outpourings of grief for these servicemen and women, whose deaths must often have followed prolonged suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, or plain old despair. There are no weeks of nonstop media coverage, no tributes at Veterans Day parades, and no memorial services with eulogies by the president. In fact, it has been a longstanding policy that the families of soldiers who commit suicide do not even recieve a letter of condolence from the president.

At best, there are sporadic news reports noting the high rates of suicide, and the occassional Congressional hearing. And while increasing lip service has been paid to improving mental health care for veterans, in reality, the VA has set up multiple obstacles to such care.  As The Nation reported last year, the VA has delayed or denied disability and medical benefits to thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because they couldn’t “prove” that their conditions were “service-related.” In addition, “a recent Inspector General report found that 70 percent of VA facilities don’t have a system to track suicidal veterans. Only a handful of VA hospitals have rehab programs that include families. And soldiers injured today face a benefits waiting list more than 650,000 veterans long.” One doctor in the VA’s leadership who publicly criticized these shortcomings was summarily fired.

Even the true statistics on veteran suicides would never have come out were it not for a class action lawsuit by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth, who sued the VA in federal court. According to the veterans’ groups:

Many veterans who have fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, as well as those who served in earlier conflicts, are not being given the disability compensation, medical services and care they need. A much higher percentage of these veterans suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) than veterans of any previous war, due to the multiple tours many are serving, the unrelenting vigilance required by the circumstances, the greater prevalence of brain injuries caused by the types of weaponry in use, among other reasons. Despite this, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (“DVA”) is failing to provide adequate and timely benefits and medical care.

The judge who heard the case in federal district court in San Francisco–himself an 86-year-old veteran of World War II–said he was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ cause, but he found against them. According to VCS, “In his decision, Judge Conti held that although it is clear to the Court that the VA may need ‘a complete overhaul’ the the power to remedy this crisis lies with the other branches of government.” In other words, if the VA can’t or won’t fix itself, it’s time for Congress and the White House to step up and do something about this travesty.

On the Death of Robert McNamara and the Continuing Survivial of Dick Cheney

POETRY AND POLITICS SERIES

Robert McNamara , the former secretary of defense who was–despite his half-baked, late-in-life regrets–one of the primary architects and apologists for the Vietnam War, died last week.

Dick Cheney has played a similar role in the Iraq War, and seems unlikely to have any attacks of hindsight or conscience in his golden years. At the end of June, Cheney offered a damning benediction on the beginning of troop withdrawals from Iraq:  

“I hope the Iraqis can deal with it,” Mr. Cheney said. “At some point they have to stand on their own, but I would not want to see the U.S. waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point.”

Here’s a poem written by British poet G.K. Chesterton in 1922, after the senseless slaughter of World War I had decimated an entire generation. With the substitution of “America” for “England” (and “men and women” for “men”), it can be fittingly rededicated to McNamara, and especially to Cheney, whose dicky heart is still beating.  

Elegy in a Country Church-Yard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that ruled in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.

 

Posted by: Jean Casella

D-Day, the Queen, and a Wartime Childhood

By now we’ve all heard about how Queen Elizabeth was snubbed by Nicholas Sarkozy, who was apparently so dazzled by the prospect of Barack Obama’s visit that he neglected to invite the queen to any of the events commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. (In a last-minute face-saver, Prince Charles agreed to attend instead.) Some people are blaming Gordon Brown, who was too busy trying to save his political skin to make sure the queen got her due. But the British press, which is having a field day over this royal faux pas, has directed most of its rage at Sarko, and at the ungrateful French in general.

The Daily Mail declared the snub “an insult to the memory of the 17,556 British and 5,316 Canadian troops who died to free France and are buried there.” Commentators in the same paper took things a step further, declaring Sarzkozy a “diminutive egomaniac,” and denouncing the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys whose “widespread collaboration with  the Nazi occupiers” made it all the more difficult for the British to “save” them from tyranny.  

I don’t go in for French-bashing, and under normal circumstances, I couldn’t care less about anyone in the British royal family, or any of the pomp and protocol that surround them. I think it’s great that Michelle Obama dared to touch the queen–she could have given her a fist bump for all I care. In fact, I wonder why the Brits don’t just do away with the monarchy altogether, and save themselves a lot of money. (Although they’d still have to deal with MPs cleaning their moats at the public’s expense.) But when it comes to anything having to do with the Second World War, I’ve got a soft spot for the British in general, and in particular for HRH–who lives in my earliest memories as Princess Elizabeth. 

I had a wartime childhood. When I was very small, we used to sitting around the radio, listening to Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the streets of London during the Blitz.

Later, when America was in the war and my family lived in Washington, D.C., we listened with our blackout curtains drawn. I remember hearing the news about D-Day, and later seeing the newsreels when we went to the movies. Those were the sounds and images of my childhood.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the APS.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the ATS.

I also have a clear memory of Princess Elizabeth, who was just ten years older than I was and still a teenager, speaking from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. I don’t know exactly when this happened or what she said, but I remember that she and her family seemed cheerful and apparently fearless despite being in a ravaged city, at the heart of a threatened land.  Later, the princess worked as an ambulence driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. As the press has rightly pointed out, she is the last living head of state to have actually served in World War II.

It all sounds pretty sentimental, I know. But there’s something else going on here, as well–something that has to do with age and the generations. It is widely assumed that the 65th anniversary will be the last major gathering of D-Day veterans on the landing beaches, since the youngest of them are now in their 80s. Speaking at the American Cemetery on the cliffs over Omaha Beach this morning, Barack Obama talked about a veteran of the 101st Airborne who had come to Normandy for the anniversary, and died last night in his sleep.

None of the heads of state present at the ceremonies was even alive during the war. If the queen had been there, at least she would be commemorating a lived experience–not something recorded in history books and PBS documentaries, and remembered by fewer and fewer of us with every passing year.