In the military, we learn to leave no one behind. Whatever the cost, whatever the situation, everyone comes home: unharmed, wounded, or dead. The importance of this principle is drilled into us from the very beginning of basic training, when our PT formations loop around to pick up those who fall out and the entire platoon is late if one individual is late. We are taught this ideal because thousands of years of experience teaches that a cohesive unit, with each member trusting in and looking after the others, is more effective in combat. That lesson is only taught because it helps us serve them better, not because our masters actually believe in such a lofty ideal. We are disposable.
In Phoenix and most likely elsewhere, the VA health care system has been leaving veterans to die while awarding bonuses to those perpetrating the neglect. The VA has always been an awkward problem for the US government. Promising to care for veterans for the rest of their lives is a key recruiting point, but actually spending the money to provide that care does not pad Lockheed and Raytheon’s bottom lines as much as building ships that don’t sail and planes that don’t fly. But now, in our new age of access and transparency, keeping the dirty secrets of the VA has become nearly impossible.
But should we exert ourselves to “fix” the VA? Is it worth our time? No. The VA is a Potemkin village, a recruiting tool used to assure naïve young men and women that their damaged bodies and ravaged minds will be cared for after their time in uniform. The degree to which it can perform this function while simultaneously minimizing the amount of actual care provided is the true measure of the VA’s success, and why VA reform is doomed from the outset.
But those lessons we learned in boot camp aren’t completely worthless. While many veterans fall on hard times, others of our number do well for ourselves, and if we apply the “No One Left Behind” ethos to our civilian lives, we can perhaps someday dispense with the VA entirely while simultaneously forming a mutual aid network that could be a kernel for a future free society.
Numerous Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) already exist, but far too many are focused on lobbying the government for more aid for veterans. Rather than follow their lead, we should look to the great work being done at the Under the Hood Café, Coffee Strong and similar GI Coffeehouses around the country and world. These institutions serve as focal points for the wider community, bringing veterans and their families together, allowing them to lean on each other and benefit from each other’s strength. Expanding on this network and looking after one another in civilian life the way we did in uniform is the real path to fixing the problems we face.