There is a great deal of outrage going on these days; it seems that everyone has a reason to be “mad as hell” about the government shutdown. Most of this political noise is really just posturing from political hacks trying to score cheap points. Faux outrage is a serious pet peeve of mine; as it muddles legitimate debates, raises our collective cynicism, and dulls our senses against real outrages around us. When everything is an outrage, nothing is an outrage. But sometimes something comes along that is truly worthy of our outrage, and the actions this week of this administration toward veterans and military families certainly qualifies.
In order for the president to enhance his bargaining position for the government shutdown and upcoming debt ceiling showdown, he has intentionally blocked World War Two veterans from open-air memorials, he has scared veterans and the public into believing veterans will not receive their benefits, and most outrageously, he is now denying death payments to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
To that last point, the president – and those doing his bidding at the Department of Defense – made a conscious decision to not pay families after their soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan. The families of the fallen are literally not receiving the money we promised them in order to bury their heroes and continue with their lives. The money could be shifted from elsewhere in the DoD budget, but it’s not.
The administration knows this will make people angry, and we are. But the president is banking on the fact that this anger will be channeled toward those mean Republicans, not him. He believes that by allowing this blood-boiling circumstance to continue (which he, and he only, could instantly rectify), he has more leverage to beat up on Republicans and end the shutdown on his terms.
In other words, veterans and military families are simply pawns in the president’s negotiations. He wants them to feel the pain so he can win. It’s shameless, shallow, and shocking.
The president has said the following recently, regarding Obamacare: “Republicans are like a doctor that is poisoning his patient [Obamacare] and then declaring that same patient sick.” In other words, he accuses Republicans of doing everything they can to undermine Obamacare so they can turn around and say that it doesn’t work. This way, the president can attempt to pin future failures of his signature issues on Republicans.
On the government shutdown he is using the very tactic he decries Republicans for using. In order to turn up the heat on Republicans and force them to pass a “clean bill,” he has found — in veterans and military families — the most obvious and enraging ways to make Americans feel the pain of the government shutdown. He then turns around and blames Republicans for shutting down the government. It’s the old “Washington monument” strategy – find the most visible symbols of the government, and shut them down. In this case, it’s veterans and war widows.
He knows that everyone supports the troops and veterans, and believes they should receive the benefits they’ve earned. So, by making veteran and military families feel the pain, he is betting the American people will be so enraged that they will rise up and demand an end to the shutdown on his terms. Even Hollywood couldn’t dream up this kind of crass political gamesmanship.
My hope is that the American people see through this crass political strategy, and point the finger for the pain veteran and military families are feeling squarely at the White House. Rather than negotiate with Republicans to find a solution that both reopens the government and addresses America’s spending addition and debt crisis, he is content to continue a political game he thinks he will win.
Some will say, but he had to shut these things down? The government is shut down, and he has no choice. If you can say these things with a straight face, or worse actually believe them, you’re either reading straight from White House talking points or don’t understand how the administration is manipulating this shutdown for their benefit.
Have you ever been to the World War Two memorial in Washington, DC. It’s an open air monument that is accessible, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, to the public. There is no staff needed to provide access to the area, and one would have a hard time finding a Park Ranger in the area on an average day. So when World War Two veterans were barricaded from entering the monument – and from scores of other monuments – it was purely an attempt to make them feel the pain and to make a point. Thankfully, our WWII heroes stormed the barricades like they stormed the beaches. God bless them.
As for the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is largely immune from the shutdown – the department’s 2014 budget was funded a year in advance and VA health care delivery and benefits processing are considered essential services. Claims processing – which impacts the well documented “backlog” of claims – will continue through October, but according to VA, could be impacted if the shutdown continues into November. These facts, which are far from dire, haven’t stopped the agency from howling about the impacts. In a statement last week, VA officials claimed the backlog will be impacted. Frankly, VA is looking for any excuse to blame someone — anyone! — else for their continued and systemic failures. They should not get away with it.
That brings me to the fact that, as of this writing, the families of 17 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the shutdown are not receiving the compensation and benefits promised to them by our government. As my friend Stewart Hickey at AMVETS points out, “While the Department of Defense has money to call 350,000 employees back to work, and buy a $47,000 mechanical bull, they don’t have the funding for our fallen families.” If they wanted to, the Pentagon could shift resources to pay these families — come on Secretary Hagel! — they choose not to. This should make you very angry.
These families have paid the ultimate price for this nation, and then we turn our backs on them to score political points. It is the height of irreverence, and the White House should be made to answer for it. Mr. President, stop using veterans and military families to score political points and get to work solving the big problems facing America.
Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. Pete is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.