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Republicans Attack Another Demographic: Veterans

May 26, 2014

Angry that most veterans’ groups refused to join his call for the resignation of the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Republican Senator Richard Burr last week wrote a remarkable open letter to America’s veterans. He said that leaders of those veterans’ groups are “more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.”

Senator Burr elaborated: those leaders “appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle” than in “gaining access to care” for their members.

Today’s New York Times reported today, “The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America hit back hard.” One organization promised to “inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials” – which certainly seems like a threat to go after Senator Burr at the next electoral opportunity, which happens to be 2016. One organization pointed out that Senator Burr had actually skipped the part of the Senate hearing that included testimony from the veterans’ groups. One organization accused Senator Burr of opting for “cheap political attacks” instead of “pursuing policy solutions.” One group pointed out that its staff accounts for 47 combat deployments – underscoring the fact that Senator Burr has no military experience.

Senator Burr’s view appears to be that problems at Veterans Affairs are entirely the fault of President Obama and his secretary of veterans affairs, General Eric Shinseki. But the veterans’ groups don’t see it entirely that way. The legislative director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America lays the blame on “insufficient resources that this administration and previous administrations have requested” but Congress has failed to provide. Just last February, Republicans in the Senate, including Senator Burr, successfully filibustered a Democratic effort to bolster the VA’s resources. That effort was led by Democratic Senator Bernard Sanders, who pointed out that the VA’s patient load had grown by 1.5 million in the last two to three years, 200,000 of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain disorders.

Critical to the debate is that today’s Republicans would love to dismantle the VA, which after all stands as surely the finest example of public health care in the United States. Republicans would love to send veterans out into the private sector to get their health care. But veterans’ organizations aren’t wild about the idea. They are concerned that the VA’s expertise in specialized medical care for spinal cord injury, blindness, amputation, brain trauma and PTSD are not easily matched in the private sector. As the legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans put it, “Simply giving a veteran a plastic card and wishing them good luck in the private sector is no substitute for a fully coordinated system of health care.”

Taking on veterans’ groups – on the Friday before Memorial Day! – seems an odd tactic for Republicans, who have for decades positioned themselves as the party that honors military service. So it’s a mark of how strongly Republicans feel about public health care that they would use the issue as a basis for an assault on groups with names like Paralyzed Veterans of America.

But I wonder if there might be another force at play. I’ve been unable to find racial demographics for veterans broken down by period of service, but I think it’s pretty clear that military service has been transformed from a white institution during World War II to a much more heavily African-American and Latino institution during the three wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA’s web site compiles data that supports this.

The VA projects that the total number of veterans will drop from 23 million in 2010 to about 14.5 million on 2040. (Obviously this projection depends on some assumptions about how many new veterans we create between now and 2040.) During that time, non-Hispanic white veterans will decrease from almost 18 million to about 9.5 million. Non-Hispanic African-American veterans will also drop, but much less – from 2.6 million to 2.4 million. But Hispanic veterans will actually increase from 1.3 million to 1.7 million. Other veterans, including Asian-American, native American, and Pacific Islander, will also increase, from about 800,000 to about 900.000.

All told, the veteran population will shift from nearly 80 percent non-Hispanic white in 2010 to about 66 percent in 2040. This reflects the change in military demographics since World War II. Combined, veterans of World War II and the Korea War total less than 15 percent of the veteran population now, diminishing essentially to zero by 2040. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will outnumber Vietnam veterans in the next year or two, and will make up more than 55 percent of all veterans by 2040.

Today’s Tea Party-driven Republicans seem to have written off African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, lesbians and gay men, and urbanites. On Memorial Day, I wonder if Republicans are getting ready to write off America’s veterans.


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