Thank You for Your Service

“You serve us with such distinction every day,
[and] I want to make sure we’re doing right by you.”
-President Obama 9/28/2016

Just as you fulfilled your duty to America, now America must fulfill our duty to all of you, we must ensure that our veterans are getting the care and support they so richly deserve.
-President Trump 11/11/2017

Let me introduce you to the “thank you for your service” meme that does double duty as a one-off way of discharging the U.S. gratitude obligation on the cheap. It’s in the approved script of every elected official in the U.S. Words and music provided to a complicit public that has jumped on the bandwagon along with the entertainment industry, sports colossus, non-profits (who should know better) and, no surprises here, the mainstream media (the likes of CNN. MSNBC, CBS etc.)- the government’s mouthpiece for ginning up patriotic perpetual war fever.

Bear in mind that America’s active duty military and veterans number a meager 7.3% of the entire living U.S. population, leaving 93% of us on the sidelines – instant cheerleaders brimming with patriotic fervor (or pretending to since it’s the PC thing to do) and mindlessly repeating “thank you for your service” at every opportunity and there are loads of them. The national security state makes sure of it.

Raising the curtain to expose the severely constrained boundaries of U.S. gratitude for the men and women whom a querulous, vindictive, mean spirited superpower sends out to do its dirty work, reveals a vastly different picture -a government whose empty promises are at odds with its spending priorities, whose financial assistance to veterans turns into corporate welfare for its buddies and donors and whose hands-off policies have put thousands of active duty military and veterans in the crosshairs of a corporate culture long on slogans, short on remedies, but always on the lookout for new profit centers

Let’s take a look at some of the areas where U.S. service members are getting the shaft -lots of lip service and little help. Veteran’s health needs are at the top of the list. At the mercy of perverse incentives in both the public and private spheres, the often-inadequate care and impossibly long wait times at veteran hospitals have been well documented. Less well known are the slimy tricks some VA hospitals pull to improve their quality of care ratings, an all-important measurement for the hustlers in the executive suite to win lucrative bonuses without having to expend much time or energy. The legitimate path to a stellar rating would be to actually improve the quality of care offered to veterans. An easier and quicker way to boost ratings and bonuses is to rejigger admission standards to exclude the sickest patients with the greatest potential for bad outcomes. At one hospital (Rosenberg VA Medical Center in Oregon), admissions were based on a self-serving model -lowest risk patients went to the head of the line, sicker patients with more complicated problems were sent home or to the nearest bus stop.

A related issue is the queue, often extending for years, that awaits veterans injured or disabled in the empire’s imperial endeavors who require disability benefits – for most of them the difference between life and death. As of January 20, 2018, 327,423 veterans are waiting for their benefit claims to be adjudicated. True, it’s a major improvement from six years ago, when close to one million veterans (883,930) had outstanding claims. On the other hand, the chasm that exists between word and deed – honoring our heroes with pomp and circumstance but failing to provide them with the benefits they deserve make our protestations seem hypocritical at best and shameless at worst.

Which leads us to the issue of homeless veterans. The statistics may make you rethink your casual “thanks for your service” in the grocery store line. 1.4 million men and women veterans are considered at risk of homelessness. Close to 40,000 veterans are actually homeless on any given night, 11% of the entire homeless population. Women who have served in the U.S. military (9% of living veterans) are particularly vulnerable being three or four times more likely to become homeless than non-veteran women. The question must be asked -Why do so many U.S. veterans come out of the service honorably discharged yet unable to function in the civilian world? The experts tell us that low wage jobs returning vets are forced to take leading to poverty and lack of psychological and vocational services are major obstacles.

A major cause of veteran homelessness is the unbridled greed and crass hypocrisy of the wealthiest banks in the U.S. As we learned, too late (as usual) to unravel the whole stinking mess, from multiple investigations thousands of active-duty military returned from overseas postings to find that their homes had been illegally foreclosed. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) -first passed in 1918 and updated over twelve times since was a grateful nation’s way of thanking young Americans for their service by “eas[ing] the burdens of service members during periods of active service.” Among other provisions, the act expressly outlawed foreclosures on the homes of active duty soldiers. Tell that to the 21st century robber barons the likes of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley who stole veterans’ homes while underwriting patriotic displays, complete with jet fighters streaking across the sky at sporting events and in entertainment venues. Come to think of it when you’re one of the major oligarchs in an oligarchic capitalist imperium, -Exhibit A: Jamie Dimon, CEO of J.P. Morgan 29.5 million in salary and bonuses (2017) -the law of the jungle becomes the only law the U.S. financial oligarchy respect. At least five thousand service members saw their futures explode as these corrupt institutions foreclosed on their homes while they were in active service. The consequences for this rank illegality? Small fines easily written off as the cost of doing business. Emboldened by their get out of jail free card, these geniuses stepped it up a notch by overcharging another six thousand service members on their mortgage payments and, kept the pot boiling by extorting hidden fees from service members trying to refinance their mortgages. Too late to do any good, Dimon characterized the whole pillage and plunder scheme as a “painful aberration.” He forgot to specify “painful” for whom. “How do I love you? Let me count the ways.”

As a coda to this tangled web of lies, deceit and illegality take note of the nonexistent reaction of the feds. Via a letter sent by one Holly Petraeus (married to the ex-head of the U.S. Afghanistan follies and disgraced CIA director David), head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s efforts to protect military borrowers, she implored CEOs of the twenty-five largest banks in the U.S. to do the right thing: “I appreciate your assistance in ensuring that your bank does not overlook its obligations -legal and otherwise- to your military customers.” Is there an optimist out there who believes that a warning without consequences could scare a bunch of serial lawbreakers straight?

In case you think you’ve heard the worst, prepare for even seamier disclosures. Ruthless scammers have become expert at separating veterans from their education benefits. The GI Bill, first passed during World War II, was the portal to higher education for every veteran. Quick to take advantage of another corporate welfare swindle promoted by the feds, the greedy lords of finance and higher education came together with a marketing scheme featuring for-profit colleges (isn’t that an oxymoron?) that enticed innocent young veterans into squandering their benefits on worthless educational “opportunities” and left many of them without a degree and mired in debt. Factoring in the outsize costs of attending these sham institutions – on average 400% more expensive than community colleges and 59% more expensive than the cost of attending in-state public institutions – for whose benefit is this state of affairs allowed to continue? Let’s hear how former President Obama answered that question when he was in office – “[For-profit schools] are trying to swindle and hoodwink you. And today we are putting an end to that.” Way to go, Mr. President. Wait, there’s more. “We’re going to step up our enforcement of improper recruitment practices [at for-profit schools]”. To that end in 2012 Obama signed an Executive Order calling on the Veteran’s Administration to discipline schools that engage in “aggressive and deceptive behavior” targeting veterans.

Perhaps it will shock you to learn that in keeping with a whole lot of other Obama podium pronouncements no appreciable change occurred after his Executive Order. or-profit schools continued to grab about 40% of the money coming out of the GI Bill. One example should be sufficiently stomach-turning. In the five years after 2009 when the updated GI Bill was passed (2009-2014), for-profit schools have made off with $8.2 billion from hapless veterans. As recipients of such a staggering piece of the veterans’ education pie, how well did they do? Not well at all is the verdict of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which reported in July, 2017, that eight of the top 10 recipients of G.I. Bill funding were for-profit colleges, and “seven of the eight companies are currently under investigation for deceptive and misleading recruiting or other possible violations of state and federal law.” As another measure of a successful “fiddle,” the committee reported that on average 60% of veterans enrolled in for-profit schools left within a year of enrolling.

If you thought things couldn’t get worse for the veterans we claim to be honoring, think again. The age of Trump has arrived and the oligarchs are circling like vultures. President Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos announced that her department was abandoning two Obama-era rules -one that made it easier for students (including veterans) to erase their federal loan debt if they were cheated by the fraudulent acts of the college they attended, and second the Gainful Employment Act cutting off loans to colleges whose graduates do not earn enough to afford their monthly loan payment. As major victims of for-profit school scams (more than one million veterans have applied to for-profit colleges since 2001), veterans are disproportionately affected. Student loan recipients with federal loans can no longer count on having their debt erased when a school abruptly closes. Just a small part of the shameless hypocrisy that the U.S. war machine doles out to its fighting forces when they are no longer doing the empire’s killing.

In case you are operating under the misapprehension that the U.S. will one day realize the error of its ways, look around you. The fleecing of American veterans continues unabated -underserving their health care needs, failing to provide counseling services for troubled veterans with a wide range of psychological problems (It’s worth repeating 20 veterans commit suicide every day), or to stem the tide of corporate plunder of their skimpy resources, their homes and benefits and turning the other cheek when veterans become “dollar signs in uniforms” for predatory lending operations.

Amidst all the gloom, compassion occasionally emerges to remind us that humanity has not completely left the building. Even organized compassion is better than no compassion at all. Which is why we honor the Arlington Ladies, a women’s group begun in 1948 after the last terrible world war, who are “comforting figures” at virtually every Arlington funeral as American soldiers are laid to rest. “It doesn’t matter whether we are burying a four-star general or a private,” says Margaret Mensch, head of the Arlington ladies. “They all deserve to have someone say thank you at their grave. They all deserve to be remembered and to be visited.

Not to diminish this noble gesture, but its reach is limited. In a country where a republic has been transformed into an empire, symbols and slogans replace action and those we call heroes can only benefit from our gratitude when it’s too late.

It takes the courage and strength of an invigorated public to confront the U.S. colossus and demand more and better treatment for the men and women who have served as canon fodder in the empire’s eternal quest for victory. It’s time to look beyond the empty words, the showy displays and bring U.S. leaders to heel. Our demands should be the simple needs of a people striding purposefully down the path to peace – negotiation over armed conflict, butter over guns, climate protection over the ravages of fracking, kinder gentler sources of fuel over poisonous chemicals that befoul the air we breathe and water we drink.

Peace and dignity. That’s how we thank our veterans. That’s how we preserve the Republic. Now before it’s too late.

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