Veterans, the shutdown, and consequences of operating in a rigged system

Today I met a young veteran of the Marine Corps who is also a retired New Jersey Firefighter. He was home in New Jersey when the towers went down and he put on his uniform and headed to the rubble to help with the recovery efforts. When we got involved in Iraq, he found himself in the two battles of Fallujah. “I loved it,” he told me. “It’s just like being at the beach, only everybody wants to kill you.” I joked, “I guess that was kind of the dynamic of what we were doing over there.”

“That’s war,” he said as he smiled.

He came home with PTSD and what he suspects is TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). He was driving a colleague around in Manhattan and my co-worker asked how he ended up with a brain injury. “All of the percussion and explosions does it, as well as driving over IEDs in armored vehicles. It…” He trailed off and honked at the car in front of us, which was inexplicably stopped in the middle of an intersection, and then asked, “What were we talking about again?”

When he came home, his girlfriend told him about the VA and the services they have to offer. He had never before heard of them. She worked upstairs from the local office and had heard through people there that maybe they could help with some of the post-war issues he was struggling with. He got in touch with them, though found himself discouraged by their service over time. “It is easy to get ready to send guys off into war. Generals make decisions, they tell guys where to go and the government what to buy, and we go to war. I don’t think the VA was prepared for seeing all of us to come home, though, or were prepared to deal with everything we are going through.” He said that the process of dealing with PTSD and related disability claims has been grueling, and that his tests regarding his suspected TBI are constantly being pushed back due to ever-expanding waiting lists.

While he said that he appreciates what the VA does, he reiterated that he found himself perpetually frustrated with what he found to be a cumbersome and confusing series of processes. “And if I was frustrated before the shutdown, I am hopeless now.” He worries that while the shutdown is not immediately affecting benefits, any impact on staffing at the VA might put more pressure on the already strained process facing veterans in the midst of wading through the system. “You should see these computers,” he said. “They’re DOS based, where you still have to manually enter every input. It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence to see that when you are waiting and waiting and waiting to have your needs met.”

When I think of this—the very real strain that even the optics of the shutdown perpetuates—it makes me incredibly angry. I think of my father, a veteran who said very similar things about how this country pays lip service to the importance of taking care of those who fought for it, but then makes the process of support cumbersome and often counter-intuitive. I had been thinking a lot about how the shutdown affects some of our most venerable citizens, but had not fully considered the trials it presents for those who have served in our military.

This shutdown is not only creating complications for many, it is hurting some peoples’ lives. Worse, the architects of this debacle will not be held responsible in the way you or I would be. The worst that will happen is that those leaders responsible for it might lose their positions in elected office, which makes for a nearly surefire path to a higher paying job as a lobbyist. The same rules don’t apply to those who made this ongoing consequence-laden temper-tantrum happen that apply to you and me. If we were to mess up at our jobs so badly that we hurt people as a result, we would be penalized and in many circumstances put in jail. Politicians get rewarded by being afforded opportunities to move on to lucrative positions as lobbyists. There are no consequences for their actions. This system is rigged.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.