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By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs
by Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven
(Duke University Press, 2022)
Author Suzanne Gordon is an activist and journalist who, a few years back, became alarmed by a movement to privatize the VA, America's Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs. She has published two insightful and detailed books to counter that movement, The Battle for Veterans' Healthcare: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Policy Making and Patient Care (2017) and Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation's Veterans (2018).
Regular readers of The Veteran may recall a review I did a couple of years ago, in which I "highly recommended" Wounds of War as an insightful and informative study of the VA. Since creating that book, Ms. Gordon has been incredibly busy acting as an advocate for America's veterans. She is Senior Policy Analyst for the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, and has traveled the US extensively to speak to audiences or testify before Congressional committees about how our veterans are being treated by the VA. She is an erudite and persuasive speaker, and her efforts have ignited the Save Our VA movement that opposes privatization of the VA and is championed by Veterans for Peace and a large majority of America's veterans. Co-author Jasper Craven is an experienced freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines. He has joined the Save Our VA battle, and in 2020 he launched Battle Borne, a weekly online news outlet covering veterans' issues. Steve Early has a long history of activism and advocacy for workers' rights, safer and healthier workplaces, and affordable healthcare. Those focuses led him to advocate for veterans, as he sees our later-in-life needs for effective healthcare and disability benefits as being addressed by a national system of "workers compensation" we know as the VA.
Together, these three have created another landmark book that offers a comprehensive overview of the status of America's veterans today, and the challenges they (we) will face in the near future. This is a virtual textbook, filled to overflowing with history, personality profiles, and insightful descriptions of legislation passed and pending. The names of many of the celebrities are familiar, and their activities, schemes, and exploits are laid out in a series of chapters that build upon one another right up to the present day. Even more interesting and insightful are the accounts of the various VSOs, or veterans service organizations, both those with waning political influence in Washington, and those created post 9/11 to represent the vets of our ill-conceived and ill-fated War(s) On Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations. The book examines such "friendly fire" entities as hearing loss, brain damage, burn pit exposure, MST or sexual trauma, and the efforts of many organizations and individuals to encourage the VA and Congress to care for veterans suffering from these service-related travesties.
Under the subject of veterans organizations, are you aware of all the following? And, do you know which ones are supportive of the VA, and which ones are proponents of privatization and ultimately dismantling the VA? I assume readers of The Veteran will be familiar with VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War). Then there are the "Big Six," the biggest of which is the American Legion, and then DAV (Disabled American Veterans), VVA (Vietnam Veterans of America), VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), PVA (Paralyzed Veterans of America), and AMVETS (American Veterans). Other vet organizations include CVA (Concerned Veterans of America), VFP (Veterans for Peace), Minority Veterans of America, VCC (Veterans Cannabis Coalition), SVA (Student Veterans of America), Common Defense, Veterans for Social Change, IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), About Face (formerly known as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War), MFSO (Military Families Speak Out), Vote Vets, Win Without War, Courage to Resist, and SWAN (Service Women's Action Network). There is even a second VFP (Vets for the People), not to be confused with Veterans for Peace. And, it wouldn't be surprising if another dozen organizations have popped up to lobby, gather veterans together, and confuse many Congresspeople as well as other interested observers. Many, of course, seek funding. Our Veterans includes some fascinating insights into their histories, financial records, and the actions and antics of some of their "celebrity" leaders.
In the past, government veterans' affairs were centered around the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), the VA, and the Veterans Affairs Committees on Capitol Hill. Recently, however, with the outsourcing of many VA functions, enterprising vendors (or potential vendors) have started to hire VSO alumni in much the same way that Pentagon contractors and potential contractors have long employed former high-ranking military officers to take advantage of their networks or connections with the guardians of the government checkbooks. Corporations offering products and services in healthcare, IT, telehealth, and medical record-keeping have sent their representatives and sales forces to the VA like pigs rushing to the trough; all seeking to establish relationships and gain a portion of the VA's $243 billion budget… which is expected to swell far beyond that amount as the vets of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military adventures around the world get older. With the prevailing atmosphere in Washington, the impassioned sales pitches of the vendors, and the campaign contributions they offer tend to outweigh the voices and the needs of veterans and their families.
Our Veterans is not a large book, but it shines an intense light on an impressive number of shadowy or oft-neglected areas that we, as veterans, should become familiar with. Because they will affect our VA benefits or healthcare tomorrow and for the future. As most of us are aware, the VA has been widely criticized, especially after a scandal regarding appointment manipulations at the Phoenix VA Medical Center in 2014. A shocking number of "charities" have sprung up, soliciting contributions to help wounded vets. The Wounded Warriors Project is probably the best-known of these, and, while that organization seems to be recovering from a misuse-of-funds scandal in 2016, a whole community of inspired copycats has sprung up. Other groups offering heart-rending pleas for funds that are alleged to be regularly misused are the Circle of Friends for American Veterans, the Coalition to Salute America's Heroes, and the Independence Fund. The book offers discussions of vets with bad paper discharges, mistreatment or lack of treatment of women in the military, residual problems stemming from LGBTQ or racist biases, and stolen-valor phonies, among many others. This little book is jam-packed with information that is not only fascinating, it promises to be incredibly helpful to any vet who will take the time to read it.
This book offers a decidedly anti-war and progressive viewpoint that most VVAW members will appreciate, but it also investigates the darker aspects of outsourcing many VA functions, and the politics, profit opportunities, and personalities that are working toward the ultimate privatization of the VA. Every veteran involved with the VA will find that Our Veterans is a reference book they can access as an unprecedented toolbox full of information that will come in handy in every confrontation with the Department of Veterans Affairs. This book contains perhaps the single most concise and accessible guidebook for those vets attempting to wade through the murky swamp of VA bureaucracy and bullshit. I still recommend you have a copy of Suzanne Gordon's previous book, Wounds of War close at hand as you interact with the VA, but the smart vet will shore up his defenses by putting both of these wonderful books side-by-side where they can grab them at a moment's notice. The good news is that Our Veterans is scheduled to be published in August, and it is highly, highly recommended!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of the best-selling memoir …and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam, and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.