A few days ago, I was reading the news and came across a headline about homeless veterans. Normally, I wouldn’t regard this as surprising. The chronic decay of veterans benefits in this country is well known. The words “Iraq War” made me read. Was this still happening now?

There’s plenty of coverage, and I’ll link to a few here, here, and here.

But the story is clear. Like before, we’re letting troops come home to nothing. No support networks, lingering injuries and post-traumatic stress. Limited job opportunities, and the sudden transition to civilian life.

The battle, on a supply delivery run, ended without casualties, and it did little to steel Gamboa for what awaited her back home in Brooklyn.

When the single mother was discharged in April, after her second tour in Iraq, she was 24 and had little money and no place to live. She slept in her son’s day-care center.

Gamboa is part of a small but growing trend among U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — homelessness.

On any given night the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) helps 200 to 250 of them, and more go uncounted. They are among nearly 200,000 homeless veterans in America, largely from the Vietnam War.

This is tragic news, but it is also an opportunity. I still remember when Paul Wellstone first came in to office, and the whole uproar over the protest he made of Iraq War 1.0. Wellstone’s assignment to the Veteran’s Affairs committee smacks of a joke, as leadership tried to hand him over to a hostile constituency. But that’s not what happened. He and his office worked tirelessly on those issues to start winning them over one by one. Benefits for atomic veterans, mental health services for the VA, homelessness reduction programs, to individual casework. And it worked. Six years later, Vets were standing at the St. Paul capitol, demanding a retraction of a dirty attack ad that accused Paul of burning a flag. No pundit could have imagined that just a few years prior, but Paul had been working steadily to make a real impact in providing just compensation and care for these people.

Veterans benefits are right because as a country we owe them a profound debt, and this is the least we can do to thank them. They are right because they help service to our country function more as an equalizer and giver of opportunity, and not just another mechanism to keep the poor down. But they are also right because they impose the true cost of war on the powers that wish to fight. I don’t recall Paul ever putting it this way, but I think it’s fair to be honest about our goals. Genuinely keeping our promises to veterans is frankly, expensive. Not compared to the cost of the war, but benefits are expensive. It would be impossible to starve the beast in this fashion, to borrow a phrase from the other side, but it is one way in which we can help focus attention on what it really means to send Americans into combat. Refusing to let the Pentagon cut corners on personnel costs is a part of the broader social vision of the progressive movement. If we don’t want people to be disposable commodities, this is one place to start.

The affection for Paul in the Veterans communities of Minnesota was not universal, but it ran deep. I remember Vets coming in to the office, and how you could always tell who had finally gotten a medal awarded, or gotten a benefits package awarded. (Of course, it was slightly easier if you’d opened the mail that day.) Their gratitude was always unmistakable, and they’d often volunteer that they’d never support Paul otherwise…but in because they knew he treated Veterans right, he had their vote. A pension for a widow who lost her husband to leukemia brought on by exposure to nuclear testing, a commendation for an act of bravery known only to a few last survivors, a benefits package that might let a wounded solider walk again, a placement with a housing agency. These were the every day cases that we saw, and they were both common place and miraculous.

This isn’t just smart electoral politics, though it is that. And it isn’t just good tactical politics, though it’s that as well. It’s the right thing to do by the people who have paid the heaviest cost of war.

-sly

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