In January of 1925, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to investigate the finances of a charity called the National Disabled Soldiers’ League. Incorporated in 1920, the league purported to “foster and perpetuate national patriotism” by working to improve the lot of disabled soldiers, sailors, and marines.
The NDSL had raised around $290,000 in the prior three years — mostly through mail campaigns in which they sent envelopes containing pencils to prospective donors to solicit donations. The problem was that they could only prove that about 10 percent of that money had gone to the actual cause. The other 90 percent likely went into the pockets of three men who took over the league less than a year after its founding.
In the hearings, a select committee — chaired by Hamilton Fish, Jr. — observed evidence of the NDSL’s unprincipled dealings. They had held excessive, bacchanalian annual conventions, after which they stiffed local hotels, restaurants, and entertainment workers. They were denounced by prominent men (like Senator William Calder and vaudeville star Edward F. Albee) who had once held positions on their advisory board. They dodged all government investigations into their finances, refusing to show their books. The league even cheated the Donnelly Corporation, the company that made their pencils.
The NDSL was a perfect example of the kind of organization that soft-hearted Americans were warned against in the years after the First World War. A 1922 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle told of “the suavely professional solicitor of tear-stained checks for shady causes” and advised readers to “ask before you give.”
Whether ineffectual charities were nefarious scams or just mismanaged, they were making a whole lot more money after the armistice. The drives that raised funds for the war effort and foreign relief during the war had inadvertently created an army of consultants ready to offer their services to every church, league, and club in the country.
Raising money for a cause — or, pejoratively, systematic begging — was a new sector in the economy of sentiment, and it was big business.
Writer James H. Collins called it the new “drive industry” when he wrote about it in this magazine 100 years ago, saying fundraising had “become a form of higher finance which is distinctly with us yet.” According to his reporting, the largest national fundraising effort before the war had been a long-planned drive for a clergy pension fund with a goal of four million dollars. But more recently, such multi-million-dollar drives had become commonplace, and — in the year since the war ended — he counted 1 to 1.5 billion dollars raised for various causes around the country.
He noticed that people were beginning to grow weary of fundraisers. “You’ve seen the drive develop in patriotism and run to the pestiferous,” Collins wrote.
Before the 20th century, charitable fundraising in the U.S. for any given cause was accomplished mostly through soliciting a handful of wealthy donors. Charles Sumner Ward and Lyman Pierce, in their work for the Young Men’s Christian Association, pioneered the method of a fundraising campaign targeting the masses. Then, systematic, crowd-sourced fundraising took off. As public relations historian Scott M. Cutlip wrote in Fund Raising in the United States, “World War I brought intensive, hard-hitting campaigns that raised millions and established philanthropy on the broad, democratic basis that characterizes it today.”
“War bazaars” were popular events for getting dressed up and indulging in some shopping and entertainment for the cause of the doughboys overseas. Or at least that was the idea. In at least one case, such an event raised almost $80,000, and a New York World investigation found that only $754 went directly to the “great war charity.” The rest was depleted by expenses for the event. In a 1917 call for this kind of graft to be avoided by funneling all war expenses through the government, The Washington Times decried the “philanthropic camouflage” of “gentlemen whose business is urging others to contribute.”
Several methods for collecting money became ubiquitous in the U.S. by 1920. Coin boxes to collect loose change were installed in all kinds of businesses. On “tag days,” volunteers — like women from the “Anti-Saloon League for enforcement of the prohibition laws” in Nashville — would swarm street corners with buckets soliciting donations. Passersby who gave would receive a “tag” pin, marking them against further harassment. Often, donors’ names and contributions were printed in the local paper after a drive for Belgian relief or war bond sales.
Sometime during the war, the tactics associated with money drives became a means for padding resumés and charging varying amounts of commission. A column in Topeka’s Capper’s Weekly in 1920 claimed that more than 10,000 men and women had entered this new field as directors, collectors, and publicity agents: “The war showed the possibility of this modern method of getting money. It has also created a new industry or profession, that of the drive-making.”
The explosion in American fundraising necessitated some standards for best practices. Giving up 30 percent of funds to a campaign manager and publicist (as Collins described one hospital doing) was unnecessary, let alone the 50 to 70 percent reported from various other campaigns. Five to ten percent was reasonable, according to most experts, with costs much more or less signaling dishonesty or inefficiency.
The National Information Bureau (later named the National Charities Information Bureau) was formed as a sort of cooperative watchdog group in New York in 1918. The bureau released eight guidelines for giving, including making sure a charity keeps good records with a C.P.A., that they aren’t duplicating the work of others, and that they avoid “remit-or-return” schemes like sending trinkets in the mail. In 1920, according to Collins, the bureau only approved of 124 of the 1,021 national money drives in the U.S.
For attentive donors, the National Disabled Soldiers’ League wouldn’t have passed the bureau’s sniff test. The league failed to produce financial records throughout the congressional committee’s investigation,they relied on remit-or-return mailing for fundraising, and they supposedly engaged in the work of advocating for veterans without coordinating with similar organizations. In 1921, the Disabled American Veterans of the World War of Minneapolis denounced the NDSL and its grifter kingpins, where they claimed “the officers … receive 90 percent of the dues as salaries.”
Another effort that aimed to breed more efficiency in charities was the popular Community Chest system. Before it became known primarily as a serendipitous card from the Monopoly game, the Community Chest was an organized group of community members who would direct lumped donations to local charities to eliminate duplication of efforts and competition. Cleveland created the model for a Community Chest program in 1913, and the idea spread around the country throughout the early century. Eventually, they merged to form the United Way Foundation, one of the largest non-profits in the world.
As technology and media have progressed, fundraising methods have evolved to suit ever more platforms for giving. War bazaars gave way to telethons just as mailing lists have given way to powerful donor relations software. Even as United Way marked a centralization of fundraising for charities in the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of the popular site GoFundMe — where one in three campaigns seeks to cover individuals’ medical costs — is a decidedly decentralized trend in giving.
That the drive industry is still “distinctly with us” after more than a century is a given. Though it has expanded and adapted to the changing world, charitable fundraising can still be approached with the same rules the National Information Bureau laid out in 1918:
After the congressional investigation into the NDSL, the House special committee recommended the case to be turned over to a Federal Grand Jury. They found that three men, John Nolan, James McCann, and Kenneth Murphy, were in complete control of the finances, and their bank accounts were receiving suspicious deposits while the league’s money was unaccounted for. The next month, the Postmaster General barred the NDSL from using the mail. “Nothing is sacred to these crooks,” the Buffalo Courier printed. “Religion, patriotism or anything else they will capitalize so long as they can see in it a chance to get money.”
Five years later, Murphy was at it again, planning a fundraising campaign to build a memorial to the Allied General Ferdinand Foch. He had even talked Franklin D. Roosevelt into joining the committee. Hamilton Fish, Jr. heard that familiar name and publicly denounced the project, calling attention to Murphy’s previous scams with the NDSL. “I hope in the future,” he said, “that members of the House and Senate, who permit the use of their names for these fake veteran organizations, will take the trouble to find out something about them.”
Today, the fundraising industry is sprawling and complex. Charities and non-profits — whether dubious or entirely dependable — still vie for well-meaning Americans’ dollars. Graduate students in philanthropic studies take courses in fundraising processes and donor behavior, not to mention the contemporary craft of grant writing.
It would, perhaps, have come as a surprise to enthusiastic early-century advocates of the Community Chest to know that in 2017, Brian Gallagher, CEO of the centralized progeny organization United Way, would receive more than $1.6 million in compensation. United Way maintains that it is comparable to CEO salaries at other non-profit organizations of similar size, but that might just further illustrate how competition has played a role in building the so-called “non-profit industrial complex.”
There are charities in the U.S. for animals, veterans (and sometimes both), medical research, homelessness, hunger, and too many environmental organizations to count. Several watchdog organizations, like CharityWatch, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau, provide reports on many of these — including financial audits, board makeup, and quick figures on spending.
On GoFundMe or other similar websites, it’s a philanthropic wild west. You can donate to a family who has just lost their house to a fire or a college student who has been diagnosed with brain cancer or any number of bizarre, cheeky, or politically-charged fundraisers. GoFundMe pages are vetted inasmuch as individuals provide and request evidential information. Although the company claims that less than .1 percent of the fundraisers on their site are fraudulent, plenty of high-profile scams have become big news stories over the years.
The current, entrenched system that makes a philanthropist out of everyone might seem inevitable and commonplace, but Americans living before war drives and tag days would never have seen it coming. They would have reacted with great suspicion to anyone soliciting them for their hard-earned dollars or mailing them pencils. What they didn’t yet understand was that their empathy for the downtrodden and poor could fuel the makings of a fantastic business model.
Featured image: Library of Congress, 1920, National Photo Company Collection: TAG DAY UP TO DATE IN WASHINGTON D.C. No longer can the citizen who rides in an automobile feel secure on tag days. In the past the lowly pedestrian has been the one to “Come across” while the automobilist was comparatively safe. Washington society ladies sprang a new one today in selling tags for the benefit of Columbia Hospital. Fair damsels on horseback “Held Up” automobiles while their sisters on foot “Worked” the sidewalks. Photo shows Miss Ellen Messer receiving a liberal contribution from a surprised automobilist.
The old veterans couldn’t wait to come. Roads ran thick with automobiles and horse buggies. Most arrived on the nation’s sprawling rails. A few walked more than 100 miles. An 85-year-old man, fearing his son would prevent him from going, crawled out a window and caught a train.
Altogether, an estimated 50,000 of the blue and gray trekked to the Great Reunion, a grand commemoration at iconic Gettysburg, on that battle’s 50th anniversary: July 1 to 3, 1913.
Why did they go? According to the many politicians and generals who also came to the reunion, the reason was clear: There was an urgent need for unity. At that very moment, U.S. ground forces were in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. Trouble in the Balkans threatened to escalate into a much larger European crisis. Not mentioned but certainly pressing were the many bitter divisions at home. Conservatives were continuously fighting progressives over Jim Crow and lynching, female suffrage, overseas expansion, immigration, and labor rights. In this time of peril, so said the organizers, only the finest of military heroes could save our great nation.
But as the famous and powerful gave their speeches, exalting the virtues of suffering and death, the vast majority of the old soldiers spent their time at Gettysburg seeking something else: proof of life and a chance to heal.
“I will see if I can find the exact spot where I was struck with a federal ‘minnie’ ball.”
—Confederate F.O. Yates
For half a century, survivors of the nation’s deadliest war struggled with memories of combat, the loss of comrades to bullets and disease, recurring nightmares, and lingering visions of killing fellow humans. Just as crippling was the loneliness. As supportive as family and friends could be, veterans needed other veterans to talk to, and their numbers were dwindling. An aging James Vernon, formerly a young lad in the 18th Virginia Infantry Regiment, said of warfare, “Those who were not there can form no idea of it.”
Tradition credits a fellow veteran for proposing a final, encompassing Civil War reunion, one Henry S. Huidekoper of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, who had lost an arm at Gettysburg. In short order, Gettysburg businessmen and city officials adopted the idea, and within months the Pennsylvania governor and state legislature supported the project. A year before the anniversary, a commission of former high-ranking officers of the blue and gray solicited help from the federal government, and interest rapidly grew.
Six months out, it was evident that this was going to be a phenomenon. The Williamsburg, Virginia, Gazette predicted the reunion would be “the greatest gathering of conqueror and conquered in the history of the world.” Slated to speak were outgoing President William Howard Taft, Chief Justice Edward White, Speaker of the House Champ Clark, the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson, and a score of governors — plus bankers, business moguls, and time allowing, a few high-ranking Civil War officers. Every major newspaper was sending correspondents. The total budget for the affair, most of it coming from the Pennsylvania and New York state assemblies and the U.S. War Department, was $1.2 million (or about $31 million in 2019 dollars).
Yet only a few hand-picked veterans were invited to speak, and none were African American. Nor were nurses or other civilians given a chance to tell their story. The organizers expected perhaps 5,000 veterans would arrive by June 29, two days before the reunion’s official start. But the people came like a collective flood. When the number exceeded 18,000 that day alone, the hosting U.S. War Department scrambled to accommodate the overflow. By July 1, the start of the anniversary celebration, veterans and tourists had transformed Gettysburg into the third largest city in Pennsylvania.
Once on site, veterans were not making declarations of peace and unity. Instead, their first inclination was to find specific locations that held personal meaning. Frail and failing Hugh Meller of Fairport, New York, was determined to see the room at the Western Maryland Railroad Station where he had been held captive for two days. With the help of two men, he ascended a stairway to the second floor. “All these later years I have feared that the old station had been demolished,” Meller told a reporter. “How glad I was when I saw the familiar building upon my arrival.” Confederate F.O. Yates wanted to see precisely where he clashed with Union infantry on July 3. “I charged within 50 feet of the federal lines on top of Gettysburg Heights. I will see if I can find the exact spot where I was struck with a federal ‘minnie’ ball,” he said. Samuel Marks, who served with the 53rd North Carolina Infantry, found the hill where he had to leave his dying brother behind.
While exploring Seminary Ridge, where the warring parties tangled on the battle’s first day and from which Confederates launched their doomed “Pickett’s Charge” in the contest’s final hours, two strangers immediately recognized a shared trait: each was missing a right arm. An ensuing conversation revealed that both received their wounds within minutes of each other, only a few hundred yards apart on that same ridge.
While the politicians proclaimed that the old soldiers had moved on from the Civil War, in reality, sectional animosities lingered. Many Confederates arrived in gray uniforms, lofting Confederate battle flags. Unionists, predominantly in civilian attire, reminded them who had won. The general white Southerner consensus was that the war was an invasion, while Northerners considered the Confederacy treasonous. Yet they reached for each other, hoping to make sense of their shared traumatic past.
Seven Gettysburg survivors traveled together all the way from Phoenix, Arizona, even though they fought for different states — Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Upon their arrival, the group retraced their steps, trying to piece together where each exactly stood and what had happened to them. After moments of initial confusion, the landmarks slowly became familiar, and the memories horrifically vivid. Yet in retelling their own struggle, they found understanding, empathy, even solace.
All the veterans came in hopes of finding fellow members of their old regiments. Unwittingly, reunion organizers made this very difficult: The vast “Great Encampment” was organized by state, but veterans were assigned to the area where they currently lived, not with the state they had served during the war. They were left to search a two-mile area, often with little or no knowledge of their comrades’ locations. Joshua Vinson looked in vain for fellow members of his Virginia cavalry unit. By sheer chance, Remi Boerner happened upon an old friend from the 91st Pennsylvania. The two warmly embraced, having not seen each other since 1865. Former Hoosier Frank Fickas searched among the 74 tents housing men from his old home state. “Is there anybody here from the 14th Indiana?” he beckoned. Finally, he saw a familiar face, and the man responded, “I’m here, Frank, the only one.”
At least one veteran lugged away a suitcase full of soil from the site where he had fought.
Such was the pattern throughout the week. When queried by his hometown paper, a North Carolinian said, “How did we put in our time? We scattered.” A journalist from the local Adams County News marveled at how this “national reunion” was instead predominantly intimate and personal. “The old soldiers by twos and threes found each other, and in camp or on the field they spent hours talking.”
The Commemoration officially began at 3 p.m. on July 1 in the Great Tent, an immense, sweltering canopy that seated 13,000. Lindley Garrison, the U.S. Secretary of War, was the day’s keynote. Like President Woodrow Wilson, who had appointed him, Garrison had no military experience himself. Still he felt qualified to pontificate grandly. “Fifty years ago today, there began here one of those conflicts between man and man, marked by such exhibitions of valor, courage, and almost superhuman endurance as to engrave itself upon the tablet of history,” he intoned. “Equal met equal, and in the domain of physical prowess all were worthy of medals of honor.” Garrison also contended that the veterans had put the past far behind them, claiming “the last embers of the former time have been stamped out.”
In speech after speech, bankers, congressmen, and governors proclaimed there existed a collective, patriotic, unifying amnesia. Notably, relatively few veterans listened to any of it. Heads of state implored veterans to forget, when they could not. “The arrival of the Secretary of War,” a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer observed, “stirred but passing interest in the hearts of the men … the vast majority [of veterans] spent the day out on the familiar old battlefield, in the tents of their comrades, or looking for the spots they occupied 50 years ago.”
Throughout July 2 and 3, the orations continued, placing veterans on pedestals — and consequently out of reach. On July 4, despite having initially rejected an invitation to attend, President Wilson arrived and delivered yet another ingratiating tribute to warriors and warfare. In a brief and stilted address, Wilson insisted “We are made by these tragic, epic things to know what it costs to make a nation — the blood and sacrifice of multitudes of unknown men …” Once again, few veterans were in attendance. Those who were present generally expressed disappointment. “President Wilson failed to stir the heart of the veterans,” observed one reporter. “Not once was he interrupted by a handclap or a cheer.” Wilson departed after spending a mere 45 minutes on site. At least Wilson made an appearance. Former President Taft and Chief Justice White reneged on their invitations.
After this final oration, the veterans began to pack their bags, leave their tents, and start for home. They carried away an assortment of souvenirs. Conspicuously absent were instruments of death — bullets, bayonets, or swords. The old soldiers’ most cherished keepsakes were things that were living, or had once been alive. One man saved a pine sapling. Another held a branch from a tree that had shielded him in the battle. J.C. McMasters took wheat from the fields back to his Indiana home. A surgeon from New Orleans pocketed some oak leaves from the Copse of Trees, the iconic epicenter of fighting on the battle’s final day. Many leaned on walking sticks harvested from the groves, a support to them in multiple ways. At least one veteran lugged away a suitcase full of soil from the site where he had fought. “I shall make a garden box of it,” he reportedly said.
Men like Wilson and Garrison ambled back to Washington, declaring the reunion a lesson in selfless sacrifice for the nation’s youth, but hardly mentioning the event ever again. In contrast, the veterans remembered this last, great gathering for the rest of their lives, because it gave them a chance to tell their own stories, make their own music, and remember their own history — virtually none of which would appear in the official narratives.
Thomas Flagel is an associate professor of history at Columbia State Community College in Franklin, Tennessee, and the author of War, Memory, and the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion.
This article originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square. It is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Shared history: An estimated 50,000 veterans gathered in Gettysburg in 1913 to commemorate their roles in the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. As one soldier said at the time, “Those who were not there can form no idea of it.” (Library of Congress)
I. The Unknown Infantryman
The room had that sterile smell you expect in hospitals: a mixture of alcohol, cold air, and fear. I had stopped at the nurses’ station to gown up. The area I was entering was a clean room, which required all visitors to put on a full white overgarment, a mask, rubber gloves, and blue booties.
It was May 2007 in Landstuhl, Germany, home of the military’s premier hospital complex in Europe. I was a two-star admiral in charge of all the special operations forces in Europe and Africa. As such, I often traveled from my headquarters in Stuttgart to visit the wounded soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most of these soldiers had severe injuries. So severe that a stop in Landstuhl was required to ensure they were stable enough to make the final journey back to the States.
In addition to seeing the wounded special operations soldiers, I usually stopped by to visit whoever was in ICU.
“What’s this guy’s story, Doc?” I said, pulling the strap of my mask a little tighter.
“Sir, all I know is that his unit was hit by a large IED. As you will see, he sustained significant blast injuries.”
“What’s the prognosis?”
“He’ll live, but it’s going to be a very long recovery.”
The doctor paused. “We have a no‑contact rule in the clean room. So please don’t reach out and touch him, even if he offers to shake hands.”
The doctor nodded, and I pushed the door open and entered.
Lying on the bed, completely naked, was a young soldier not more than 25 years old. His body was swollen from the impact of the blast. Burns covered the upper half of his torso, and below his waist he had lost half of one leg and much of the other.
His face was so badly damaged that his eyes were almost sealed shut and his lips burned clean off. Lifesaving tubes extended from just about every orifice in his body, and monitors around the room beeped continuously.
“Sir, he can’t talk, but he can hear you, and he likes to engage people,” the doctor said.
I slowly walked up beside the bed, cautious not to touch the young man.
“Hey partner, my name’s Admiral McRaven.” I could see him acknowledge my presence. “You look like shit!”
He managed a smile and reached out his hand toward the nightstand.
The doctor grabbed a clipboard and handed it to the soldier.
“He likes to write his responses out.”
Pulling the attached pen from its holder, he scribbled on the notepad You should see the other guy.
I laughed and he chuckled with me.
“Looks like they are taking good care of you. Is there anything you need?”
Once again he grabbed the clipboard: A beer.
The doctor looked at me and reluctantly shook his head.
“Well, I tell you what. You get back to the States, get well, and the beers are on me.”
He just nodded.
“Sir, all I know is that his unit was hit by a large IED. As you can see, he sustained significant blast injuries.”
I was struggling with what to say. I had been in these situations hundreds of times before and all you could do was make small talk.
Normally, I knew the soldier or his unit and I had something more significant to offer. I walked around to the doctor’s side of the bed.
“Is he a Marine or a soldier?” I whispered to the doctor.
“Sir, I don’t know. I’m just the attending physician. I can find out for you, though.”
“No, not necessary.”
Walking back around to my side of the bed, I leaned over the young man and asked, “Are you a Marine or a soldier?”
He seemed agitated by the question. He pointed to a tattoo that was etched on his thigh. He must have assumed that the tattoo was fully visible, but the blast had burned the leg so badly that only a smudged outline appeared.
I looked closely and could see the image of a Big Red One: the 1st Infantry Division.
“You’re a soldier,” I commented.
He grabbed the clipboard. Infantry, he wrote.
Infantry. The toughest occupation in the Army, I thought. The soldiers are always road marching, always carrying a rucksack, always in the line of fire. You have to be strong and fit to last in any infantry unit, particularly during war.
As I glanced at the young man’s battered body, I wondered if he fully understood the degree of his injuries.
He noticed me assessing his physical condition, and suddenly a look of defiance came across his swollen face. He rolled in my direction and then wrote slowly in capital letters, I WILL BE INFANTRY AGAIN!
I read the note aloud and he nodded, tapping the clipboard for emphasis. “Yes. Yes,” I stumbled. “You will be infantry again.”
He smiled and rolled back over.
Somehow, I believed him. I had seen it time and time again.
These young men and women who had joined the Army during the war had a tremendous sense of determination. Nothing was going to stop them in the pursuit of their dreams. And setbacks like this — well, sometimes that was the price of being a soldier.
I left the room and never saw the young man again. I like to believe that he is marching alongside his comrades, two prosthetic legs moving him in rhythm to the cadence. I like to believe that his swollen body is back to normal and that his washed-out tattoo has been replaced with bright new ink. I like to believe he has returned to some sense of normality. I like to believe, because I must. He left me no choice.
II. Senior Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Mike Day
I’ve learned that life has a mystical aspect to it. As a man of faith, I have felt the hand of God too many times not to know that it exists. But when you see his handiwork up close, when you examine all the possible outcomes and determine that only one outcome is possible — but then something else happens — that’s when you know there is more to life than meets the eye.
The nurse at the Landstuhl intensive care unit was almost speechless.
“I’ve been in nursing over 20 years,” she said. “And I’ve been here at Landstuhl for the past three years. I’ve seen some of the worst injuries of the war.” She started to tear up, but they were happy tears.
“I have never seen anyone shot up this bad.” She paused. “He’s got 16 bullet holes in him” — she took a deep breath — “and he is going to be fine.”
I smiled and thanked her and her team for everything they had done to save my fellow SEAL. She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “We had nothing to do with it.”
I understood. Life is that way sometimes.
The man in the hospital room was Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike Day. Mike had served with me in SEAL Team Three. He was a character: a bit mouthy, in a funny Team-guy sort of way. Always had a joke, nothing seemed too serious, but he was a great SEAL operator and a good sailor. I had lost track of Mike after I left the West Coast. Now we were reunited in the worst of all possible situations. A hospital.
Talking with Mike’s military escort, I got the whole backstory. During a raid on a house in Iraq, Mike had been leading a joint U.S.-Iraqi squad. The squad, led by an Iraqi officer, with Mike following right behind, stacked on a door leading into the kitchen area of the home. On order, the Iraqi officer breached the door and the squad stormed in. The room was not the kitchen as expected, but a smaller anteroom. The Iraqi officer froze; the flow of the squad came to a halt.
Mike knew that time was now of the essence. The bad guys inside would clearly have heard them. Mike yelled at the Iraqis to continue the squad surge into the next room, but fear overcame the Iraqis and they began to retreat out the door.
Mike took charge and led the team through the next door, but it was too late. Four insurgents with automatic weapons lay waiting. They opened up on full automatic, bullets flying everywhere.
Mike was immediately hit in his Kevlar chest plate, with several rounds piercing his arms and legs. As the bursts from enemy fire continued, Mike’s M‑4 rifle was cut from his body by an ensuing round and he crumpled to the floor, having sustained 27 direct hits in a matter of seconds. Behind him three others were killed, including a young SEAL officer who sustained a single shot to the back of the head.
Lying on the floor, bleeding severely, Mike pulled his handgun from his holster and, one by one, killed the insurgents. And then, in classic Mike Day fashion, he got on his radio and called to the team outside to calmly let them know that the house was clear. Medics stabilized Mike at the scene, and within a day he was on his way to Landstuhl. At the time, no one knew whether or not he would survive.
As with so many of my other visits to the hospital, my wife, Georgeann, had joined me. Peering through the window, we could see Mike lying on his back with the usual array of monitors and IVs protruding from his body. The nurse opened the door and cautioned us not to stay too long. Mike still had another surgery to undergo before they moved him back to the States.
As I entered the room, Mike perked up, raised his hand high in the air, and yelled loudly, “Hey, skipper! Great to see you!”
“Michael!” I boomed back at him at an equally high volume. “Are you lying down on the job again?”
“No sir! Just getting ready for the next fight!”
I shook my head and laughed.
As I got closer to Mike’s bedside I was stunned by what I saw.
“I have never seen anyone shot up this bad.” She paused. “He’s got 16 bullet holes in him” — she took a deep breath — “and he is going to be fine.”
There was hardly any part of his body that didn’t have a bullet hole. Only his chest, where the Kevlar vest had protected him, was free of wounds.
I sat for about 30 minutes and listened to Mike’s story. As the minutes went by, I could see him struggling to stay awake. Finally, he looked me in the eye and said, “Sir, when do you think I can get back to the guys?”
Looking down at Mike’s tattered body and the colostomy bag plugged into his bowels, I knew the answer, but sometimes the truth wasn’t always the best response. u
“As soon as you can kick my ass on the obstacle course, then you can get back to the guys,” I said.
Mike rolled his eyes and smiled. “Well, that shouldn’t be too hard.”
The morphine started to kick in and he slowly drifted off to sleep.
I look back on the hundreds of men and women I visited in the hospitals. Every single one of them — every single one of them — asked me the same basic question: When can I return to my unit? When can I be back with my fellow soldiers? When can I get back in the fight? No matter how battered their bodies, all they could think about were their friends, their colleagues, their comrades, still in harm’s way. Never once — never once — did I hear a soldier complain about their lot in life. Soldiers with missing legs, blinded soldiers, paralyzed soldiers, soldiers who would never lead a normal life again, and yet not one felt sorry for themselves.
Later that week, Mike was transferred back to the States. His injuries were too severe for him to get back in the fight, but that didn’t stop him from serving his fellow warriors. Today Mike helps veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He gives back to the nation every chance he can. Over the years that followed, I would run the obstacle course every chance I could, knowing that one day Mike would show up to challenge me. I needed to be ready.
III. Sergeant Brendan Marrocco
As my security detail pulled up to the entrance of Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., Sgt. Maj. Thompson stepped out from the main building and greeted me with a smile and a sharp salute. “Sir, good to have you back.”
“Thanks, Sergeant Major,” I said, shaking his hand. “Where is your brother, the other Sergeant Major Thompson?”
It was a running joke. The Thompson “twins” were the two senior enlisted men who provided patient advocacy for the special operations soldiers at Walter Reed. One was black, the other white. But, down deep, they were both Army green and damn proud of it.
“Sir, he’s down in the Advanced Training Center talking to our newest patients.”
The ATC was a remarkable 31,000-square-foot facility that helped soldiers with amputated limbs get back to some sense of normalcy. It was equipped with a state‑of‑the-art prosthetics lab, the finest rehabilitation technology, and world-class doctors. But what really made it special were the soldiers who, under the most difficult of circumstances, bonded together as a unit, each soldier helping his or her brothers and sisters to heal.
I loved to visit the ATC because it was like being on the grinder during morning SEAL calisthenics. Everyone harassed each other. They challenged one another. They wouldn’t let you feel sorry for yourself. Stop your whining. So you lost two legs. So what! Now you can get two new ones that will make you taller. Maybe then the women will notice you.
After I had spent an hour or so with several of our special operations soldiers, Sgt. Maj. Thompson pulled me aside.
“Sir, there is one soldier here from the 25th Infantry Division that I would like you to meet. His vehicle was hit by an EFP in Iraq and he is now a quadruple amputee. His unit is still overseas, so he hasn’t gotten a lot of visitors yet.”
“No problem, Sergeant Major. Just point me in the right direction.”
The sergeant major subtly nodded to my left, and it didn’t take long to figure out who he was talking about.
Leaning against the wall was a young man balancing on his “shorties,” new prosthetics attached to what was left of his legs. The shorties raised him just inches off the ground and were the first step in preparing him for the more challenging full artificial limbs. Not only was he missing two legs, but the blast from the explosively formed projectile had also severed both his arms, burned his neck, and left him with lacerations across his face.
I had seen a lot of amputees, but when the human form is so changed by either nature or the violence of man, it still takes your breath away.
The sergeant major saw the look in my eye.
“I know, sir,” he said, acknowledging the sorrow we both felt.
Turning from the sergeant major, I walked over to the young man and took a knee so that I could face him eye to eye.
“Good afternoon,” I said, extending my hand to shake what remained of his right arm.
He looked at me, trying to determine what manner of uniform I was wearing. “You’re a general?” he asked, looking at the four stars on my chest.
“Well, an admiral, actually,” I said, smiling. “What’s your name?”
You’re missing all four limbs, have burns and cuts throughout your body, and someone else has it worse?
“Brendan Marrocco,” he replied politely.
“I understand you’re with the Tropic Lightning,” I said, referring to the infantry division’s nickname.
“Yes sir!” He smiled, trying to stand a bit more erect. “Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Regiment.”
“Looks like you had a rough go of it in Iraq.”
He looked to the ground where his legs would have been and then quickly surveyed the rest of the room packed with amputees.
“Yeah, but not as bad as some of the guys.”
It was hard to hide my expression. Not as bad as some of the guys, I thought. You’re missing all four limbs, have burns and cuts throughout your body, and someone else has it worse?
Standing next to Marrocco was another young man.
“Sir, this is my brother Mike.”
I greeted Mike, but I could tell he was devastated by what had happened to his younger brother. The sadness on his face was heartbreaking. I turned back to Marrocco.
“Are they taking good care of you here?” I asked.
“Yes sir! The docs and the nurses have been terrific, and I love being around the guys.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
He didn’t hesitate for a second. “Yes sir. I would like to get back to Hawaii and meet my company when they return from Iraq.”
If you’re lucky in life, there is a moment, a moment you never forget, when you meet someone whose entire world has been turned upside down and they find a way to inspire you. They find a way to show you that you can rise above all of life’s difficulties. They find a way to make the human condition, regardless of its form, seem perfect. Kneeling face‑to‑face with young Brendan Marrocco, I had one of those moments. He must have seen something in my eyes — pity, sorrow, regret — because he cocked his head and smiled.
“Sir,” he said, touching me with what remained of his right arm. “I’m 24 years old. I have my whole life in front of me. I’m going to be just fine!”
I’m going to be just fine.
I never forgot those words, and when life got a little difficult for me, I remembered that moment again and again. I repeated those words over and over. I am going to be just fine.
Postscript: Brendan Marrocco got to Hawaii in time to greet the returning 25th Infantry Division. In 2012, he underwent a successful bilateral transplant that gave him two new arms. Today he travels the country telling his story and helping those he considers less fortunate than himself.
Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired) is the author of the #1 New York Times best-selling book Make Your Bed. In his 37 years as a Navy SEAL, he commanded at every level. As a four-star admiral, his final assignment was as commander of all U.S. special operations forces.
This article is featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
Every headstone at Arlington tells a story. These are tales of heroes, I thought as I placed the toe of my combat boot against the white marble. I pulled a miniature American flag out of my assault pack and pushed it three inches into the ground at my heel.
I stepped aside to inspect it, making sure it met the standard that we had briefed to our troops: “vertical and perpendicular to the headstone.” Satisfied, I moved to the next headstone to keep up with my soldiers. Having started this row, I had to complete it.
One soldier per row was the rule; otherwise, different boot sizes might disrupt the perfect symmetry of the headstones and flags.
I planted flag after flag, as did the soldiers on the rows around me. Bending over to plant those flags brought me eye-level with the lettering on those marble stones. The stories continued with each one. Distinguished Service Cross. Silver Star. Bronze Star. Purple Heart. America’s wars marched by. Iraq. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Korea. World War II. World War I. Some soldiers died in very old age; others still were teenagers. Crosses, Stars of David, Crescents and Stars. Every religion, every race, every age, every region of America is represented in these fields of stone.
I came upon the grave site of a Medal of Honor recipient. I paused, came to attention, and saluted. The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest decoration for battlefield valor. By military custom, all soldiers salute Medal of Honor recipients irrespective of their rank, in life and in death. We had reminded our soldiers of this courtesy; hundreds of grave sites would receive salutes that afternoon. I planted this hero’s flag and kept moving.
On some headstones sat a small memento: a rank or unit patch, a military coin, a seashell, sometimes just a penny or even a rock. Each was a sign that someone—maybe family or friends, perhaps even a battle buddy who lived because of his friend’s ultimate sacrifice—had visited, and honored, and mourned.
For those of us who had been downrange, the sight was equally comforting and jarring—a sign that we would be remembered in death, but also a reminder of just how close some of us had come to resting here ourselves. I left those mementos undisturbed.
After a while, my hand began to hurt from pushing on the pointed, gold tips of the flags. There had been no rain that week, so the ground was hard. I questioned my soldiers how they were moving so fast and seemingly pain-free. They asked if I was using a bottle cap, and I said no. Several shook their heads in disbelief; forgetting a bottle cap was apparently a mistake on par with forgetting one’s rifle or night-vision goggles on patrol in Iraq. Those kinds of little tricks and techniques were not briefed in the day’s written order, but rather get passed down from seasoned soldiers. These details often make the difference between mission success or failure in the Army, whether in combat or stateside. After some good-natured ribbing, a young private squared me away with a spare cap.
We finished up our last section and got word over the radio to go place flags in the Columbarium, where open-air buildings contained thousands of urns in niches. Walking down Arlington’s leafy avenues, we passed Section 60, where soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were laid to rest if their families chose Arlington as their eternal home. Unlike in the sections we had just completed, several visitors and mourners were present. Some had settled in for a while on blankets or lawn chairs. Others walked among the headstones. Even from a respectful distance, we could see the sense of loss and grief on their faces.
Once we finished the Columbarium, “mission complete” came over the radio and we began the long walk up Arlington’s hills and back to Fort Myer. In just a few hours, we had placed a flag at every grave site in this sacred ground, more than two hundred thousand of them. From President John F. Kennedy to the Unknown Soldiers to the youngest privates from our oldest wars, every hero of Arlington had a few moments that day with a soldier who, in this simple act of remembrance, delivered a powerful message to the dead and the living alike: you are not forgotten.
The Thursday before Memorial Day is known as Flags In at Arlington National Cemetery. The soldiers who place the flags at every grave site in the cemetery belong to the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, better known as The Old Guard. Since 1948, The Old Guard has served at Arlington as the Army’s official ceremonial unit and escort to the president.
I walked through Arlington for Flags In with The Old Guard in 2018. “What better way to show the nation and our fellow soldiers that we care and we never forget,” observed Colonel Jason Garkey, the regimental commander. As we walked along streets named for legends like Grant and Pershing, he added, “This mission is really important for The Old Guard, too. It’s the only day of the year when the whole regiment operates together. It gives all my soldiers—all my mechanics and medics and cooks—a chance to come perform our mission in the cemetery.”
Flags In carries a special meaning for our citizens, too, judging by our conversations that afternoon. Col. Garkey greeted every civilian who approached us. Most were curious about the soldiers they saw walking across the cemetery. As he explained Flags In and The Old Guard, without fail they expressed their fascination and gratitude. In Section 60, we encountered families and friends paying early Memorial Day visits to their loved ones. Col. Garkey thanked them for their sacrifice, and they thanked him for his service and for remembering their fallen heroes. He never mentioned that those were his soldiers or that he had planted flags that day at the graves of his own friends and mentors.
My turn at Flags In came in 2007 during my own tour at Arlington. I had joined The Old Guard a couple of months earlier, after serving a tour in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. My path to The Old Guard was unusual—like my journey into the Army itself.
It began the morning of 9/11 in a law-school classroom. In those days before smartphones, we did not learn that America was under attack until class ended, almost an hour after the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. But my life changed in that moment. I knew the life I had anticipated in the law was over.
I wanted to serve our country in uniform on the front lines. I finished school and worked for a couple of years to repay my student loans, time I also used to get prepared physically and mentally for the Army. It took my recruiter by surprise when I told him that I wanted to be an infantryman, not a JAG lawyer. To his credit, he signed me up and shipped me out, setting me on the path to Iraq. After more than a year in training, I joined the 101st in Baghdad in 2006, taking over a platoon of Screaming Eagles.
We conducted raids, laid in ambushes, dodged roadside bombs and sniper fire, and sorted out the dead in a vicious sectarian war. And at the end of that tour, to my surprise, the Army gave me orders to The Old Guard, even though I had not applied to the all-volunteer regiment. I knew The Old Guard was a special unit. The regiment has some of the highest eligibility standards in the entire military. Old Guard alumni were among the most squared-away soldiers I knew in the Army. And the mission set—not only conducting daily funerals in Arlington, but also world-famous ceremonies like presidential inaugurations and state funerals—called for the Army’s best soldiers, performing at the highest levels. I looked forward to the assignment and I felt honored while serving at Arlington.
But I did not fully appreciate our nation’s special reverence for The Old Guard and Arlington until years later, when I entered public life. A political newcomer, I spent the early months of my first campaign introducing myself to Arkansans, telling them about myself and what I hoped to accomplish for them. The most common question I got was not about Iraq or Afghanistan or about iconic Army institutions like Ranger School. No, the most common question, by far, was about my service with The Old Guard. The same holds true today; when I speak around the country to new audiences, questions about The Old Guard outnumber all the others. Likewise, thousands of Arkansans visit me each year in Washington. When I ask them about the highlight of their trip, Arlington tops the list.
The Old Guard embodies the meaning of words such as patriotism, duty, honor, and respect. These soldiers are the most prominent public face of our Army, perform the sacred last rites for our fallen heroes, and watch over them into eternity. The Old Guard represents to the public what is best in our military, which itself represents what is best in us as a nation.
As Old Guard soldiers, we viewed the funerals through their eyes as we trained, prepared our uniforms, and performed the rituals of Arlington. We held ourselves to the standard of perfection in sweltering heat, frigid cold, and driving rain. Every funeral was a no-fail, zero-defect mission, whether we honored a famous general in front of hundreds of mourners or a humble private at an unattended funeral.
Although funerals are The Old Guard’s highest-priority mission, the regiment also performs in ceremonies around the capital almost every day. From welcoming foreign leaders at the White House and the Pentagon to honoring retiring soldiers at Fort Myer, The Old Guard represents the discipline and skill of all soldiers. Among its ranks, The Old Guard boasts world-class musicians, the military’s most elite color guard, and the Army’s premier drill team. They carry the Army story and values to worldwide audiences and the smallest gatherings alike, always with pride and precision.
Arlington National Cemetery and The Old Guard transcend politics. We live in politically divided times, to be sure. Yet the military remains our nation’s most respected institution, and the fields of Arlington are one place where we can set aside our differences. Which itself is something of a historic irony, because our national cemetery was birthed in the most divisive time in our nation’s history, when Americans killed each other on such a mass scale that a farm across the river from our capital became the graveyard for those war dead. Perhaps because of those bloody origins, Arlington National Cemetery emerged from the ashes of the Civil War as a place dedicated to healing, reconciliation, and remembrance.
What the Old Guard does inside the gates of Arlington is a living testament to the noble truths and fierce courage that have built and sustained America. We go to great lengths to recover fallen comrades, we honor them in the most precise and exacting ceremonies, we set aside national holidays to remember and celebrate them. We do these things for them, but also for us, the living. Their stories of heroism, of sacrifice, of patriotism remind us of what is best in ourselves, and they teach our children what is best in America.
On the eve of the war that transformed this farm into a national cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln pleaded for unity in his First Inaugural. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” he acknowledged, while appealing to the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” In our days, as in his, passions can no doubt strain our bonds of affection, but those mystic chords of memory still stretch from the patriot graves of Arlington across our great land, calling forth yet again “the better angels of our nature.”
For the fallen and their families, The Old Guard honors their service and sacrifice. For us, the living, The Old Guard embodies our respect, our gratitude, our love for those who have borne the battles of a great nation—and those who will bear the burdens of tomorrow. No one summed up better what The Old Guard of Arlington means for our nation than did Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey. He recalled a moment with a foreign military leader while driving through the cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “I was explaining what The Old Guard does and he was looking out the window at all those headstones. After a long pause, still looking at the headstones, he said, ‘Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.’ ”
From the book “Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery” by Tom Cotton. Copyright © 2019 by Thomas B. Cotton. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Featured image: U.S. Army.
Smoke and flames billowed through the windows of the Baghdad home. U.S. Army Corporal Damon Faust’s unit was on patrol, and as they reached the burning building, they suddenly realized: People were trapped inside. Faust grabbed a fire extinguisher and charged into the two-story home. He was still loaded with body armor, magazines, and ammunition; his M203 grenade launcher hung over his shoulder. Propane tanks sat ominously in the entryway.
“An Iraqi gentleman started pointing where the flames were,” Faust says. “I didn’t speak the language, but I knew he was trying to tell me something. So I’m following him, making a path with the extinguisher, and I can’t see anything. And he picks up this kid, a young boy, and he hands the boy to me, and we make our way out of the building.”
The boy was badly burned. Faust delivered him to the platoon’s medic, SPC “Doc” Murillo, and raced back into the building. He soon carried out an elderly woman who was burned worse than the boy. Doc Murillo treated their wounds and the two were whisked away in an ambulance.
“From that day on,” says Murillo, “I looked at Damon Faust different.”
Faust was awarded the U.S. Army Soldier’s Medal for heroism, and firefighting would become his future. In 2016, 11 years after his actions in Baghdad, Faust joined the Estacada Rural Fire District 69 in Oregon, and the American Legion named him Firefighter of the Year in August 2018. He plays a leading role in Estacada’s Veterans to Firefighters program, which helps soldiers enter the fire service, providing them with camaraderie, direction, and teamwork.
“The goal is to help repurpose veterans, put them with mentors, and show them that there are other ways to serve,” says the 40-year-old Faust.
A desire to serve led Faust to the Army in 2000. Raised by a single mom, he was a rebellious teenager who eventually dropped out of high school. “I didn’t have many male role models,” he says. “A lot of the guys I grew up with ended up in jail or addicted or dead. I was a pretty rotten teenager, and I wanted to do something good. I wanted to make amends for how I treated my mother.”
Faust served in Germany for three years and then joined a National Guard infantry unit in California. He was working at a post office when the Iraq war began in 2003.
“I’m sitting at home playing a Call of Duty-type game and I get a call from my platoon sergeant, who’s now a recruiter,” Faust recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, Damon, Charlie Company is going to Iraq,’ and I said, ‘Not without me.’”
“I definitely live with my time in Iraq. It definitely goes to sleep with me and wakes up with me some mornings.”
For nine months, Faust’s unit patrolled Baghdad’s notorious Sector 26. He was involved in numerous skirmishes, including a March 2005 truck bomb attack on the Al-Sadeer Hotel that killed three people and wounded more than 40.
Faust was hit multiple times by IEDs, though his injuries could have been worse. Militants often forced farmers and shop owners to bury IEDs, but citizens frequently placed the bombs deep in the ground or far from the road.
“I think I got hit more by those weaker IEDs,” he says. “And then I had two major ones that rattled my noggin pretty good.”
Faust has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. “I definitely live with my time in Iraq,” he says. “It definitely goes to sleep with me and wakes up with me some mornings. Some days are better than others.”
When he returned from his one-year tour in Iraq, he went to community college and then Oregon State University. But his combat experiences plagued him. He began seeing a counselor and spent three months in California receiving inpatient care for PTSD. “I started to build tools to identify my triggers and my red flags,” he says.
Faust still wanted to serve others. Some of his best memories from Baghdad were working at first-aid stations and an Iraqi election. “The folks holding up their little black fingers [inked to indicate they’d voted], they were stoked, and you could see it on their faces,” he says. “Those humanitarian-type missions, where we weren’t kicking in doors — I felt a great sense of pride.”
Faust eventually served with Team Rubicon, a disaster relief organization staffed mainly by volunteers, most of whom were veterans. He worked in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, cleaning out houses and moving debris, and later volunteered in Haiti and the Philippines. While working in Oklahoma after 2013’s Moore tornado, he met a mentor, Terry Rivera, a retired New York City firefighter. “Damon is a deep soul,” Rivera says. “Every task I asked of him he accomplished, and we spoke a lot about my time in the FDNY on and after 9/11.”
Faust felt a bond with firefighters like Rivera. He earned his degree from OSU, and with the help of the Veterans Administration, he obtained his wildland firefighter certification.
After initially doing seasonal work, he joined the Estacada fire department full-time. Faust soon became involved with the Veterans to Firefighters program and met with the department’s division chief, Richard Anderson, to learn about ways the program could support more veterans. But unbeknownst to Anderson, Faust was already providing support. For several months, he’d been driving one of the program’s new recruits to his appointments at the VA hospital.
“It was impressive to see that level of dedication and compassion,” says Anderson, who’s working with Faust to raise funds for the program. “He hadn’t even told us he was doing it. It was just something he was doing out of the kindness of his heart.” Faust now does such work on duty, guiding veterans through the VA process.
Firefighting isn’t the right fit for every veteran, says Faust. For some, the flames trigger combat memories. But frequently, as with him, it provides a sense of purpose. He’ll always have some degree of PTSD, but these days life seems good.
Faust cherishes his long-time partner, Shauna, who stuck with him during his darkest battles with PTSD, and his two daughters from a previous marriage. In 2018, he was the grand marshal for Estacada’s Fourth of July parade. And yes, he’s made amends with his mother, who often worried about him — but also believed in him. “She has no doubt that if I say I’m going to do something that it will happen,” he says. “And she’s right most of the time.”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image credit: Lucas Carter/The American Legion
In the summer 1932, more than 17,000 American veterans marched on Washington, D.C., along with 26,000 family members and supporters, demanding payment of the bonuses promised in the World War Adjusted Compensation Act, or Bonus Act, of 1924.
The bonus, which was intended to make up the difference between what they were paid as soldiers and what they would have earned as civilians, entitled every veteran to $1 for each day of domestic service (up to $500) or $1.25 for each day of overseas service (up to $625). Veterans were issued certificates for these bonuses that totaled $3 billion in all, but there was a catch: The certificates couldn’t be redeemed until 1945.
Then the Great Depression hit. With the support of veterans’ groups, Congress, over the president’s veto, allowed veterans to borrow up to half the face value of their bonus certificates. But by 1932, veterans felt an urgent need for immediate full payment. So they marched on Washington to pressure Congress for an early disbursement.
The so-called Bonus Army crowded around the Capitol, camped out on public grounds, and built shantytowns on the banks of the Potomac River. In June, they presented their case to the House of Representatives, which soon voted for an early complete payment of the bonuses.
When the resolution moved to the Senate, though, it was defeated on June 17.
At this point, many veterans simply headed home. Other veterans stayed put, having very little reason to leave, and hoped President Hoover would help them.
On July 28, the Attorney General ordered the Washington police to remove the veterans from the capital. The veterans resisted; two were shot and killed by police. President Hoover, far from helping the remainder of the Bonus Army, ordered the current Army to complete the job. Commander Douglas MacArthur, disobeying orders, launched a full assault on the veterans. Cavalry and tanks backed up foot soldiers who drove the Bonus Army from their shanties, which were then burned.
Writing in the Post two months later, Al Smith, former governor of New York, blamed the summer’s calamity on the American Legion and the House of Representatives for encouraging the marchers in spite of the economic infeasibility of paying the bonuses early. But he names the overall politics that led to the Bonus Act and its various amendments and expansions as the larger perpetrator:
[blockquote]If left to the veterans themselves and to the officials of the Government who have to deal with it, there is no doubt that a just and equitable system of compensation and reward could be arrived at, but the unfortunate thing about it all is that it is bedeviled by politics. [/blockquote]
Smith believed it was irresponsible to offer benefits that the budget couldn’t afford. The politicians had used the veterans for their own purposes, and it would happen again.
Smith worried about the snowballing expense of veterans’ benefits. He estimated that, by 1945, the federal government will have spent $23.5 billion on veterans’ benefits. He couldn’t have known that amount would be dwarfed by the cost of caring for the next generation of veterans, from an even larger war.
Smith’s concerns remain a problem today. Between 2000 and 2011, aid to disabled veterans rose 166 percent, from $14.8 billion to $39.4 billion. The president’s 2017 budget includes more than $180 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, most of it dedicated to disability compensation and pensions.
In the 1930s, an economist predicted that the cost of armaments and lost production would soon make war too expensive to wage. That didn’t prove to be true. Perhaps the cost of caring for disabled veterans will eventually make war too expensive to be considered as a solution for international conflicts.
Veterans and Taxpayers
By Alfred E. Smith
Originally published on September 17, 1932
No questions in government are so difficult as those that give rise to emotions in the hearts of the people. Nobody will take the negative side of the question that the man who offers himself to the country in time of trouble should be rewarded. Nobody who remembers the returning American heroes who went to France to decide the war would be willing to subscribe to any theory that these soldiers should not receive from the hands of the American people the recognition for that service to which they are entitled. If left to the veterans themselves and to the officials of the Government who have to deal with it, there is no doubt that a just and equitable system of compensation and reward could be arrived at, but the unfortunate thing about it all is that it is bedeviled by politics.
It cannot be disputed that the recent gathering in Washington of veterans demanding the immediate payment of the bonus was certainly encouraged by the attitude of members of Congress. These men received the bulk of their encouragement from the fact that the House of Representatives, the popular branch of the National Legislature, that one which is closest to the people, actually did pass a bill for immediate payment of the bonus. Who can deny that politics entered there into an economic question? Public opinion throughout the country is absolutely right when it lays some part of the blame for what occurred in Washington upon the statesmen hi the Lower House who, by their votes, their speeches and their actions, lent encouragement to that gathering of the veterans. Though I dislike to say it, I feel it is true, also, that they did this in the face of the fact that they could not have believed that their action on the bill was to meet with final success.
The Growing Costs of War
Students of American history knew that when a large Army was being mobilized to strengthen the position of the United States in the World War, the American people for generations to come were incurring liabilities. That lesson was forcefully impressed upon the American people at the close of the Civil War, and the gradual increase every decade in appropriations for pensions revealed the activity of a group organized to exact as much as possible from the Government. Appropriations for Civil War pensioners, between 1880 and 1920, jumped from $55,000,000 to $203,000,000, and in 1930, after the passage of 65 years, the total cost of Civil War pensioners remained at the figure of $125,000,000. All this was brought about by a series of enactments extending veterans’ pensions and benefits, engineered through Congress by a powerful pension lobby.
There are times when newspaper cartoons more clearly depict the situation than do columns of reading matter, and while viewing the present situation with respect to veterans, my mind is carried back to a cartoon by Keppler in Puck.
The picture displays the pension agent auctioning off the soldier vote. The pension agent, with his arm around the veteran soldier, is offering him to the two political parties. The Democratic Party is represented on one side and the Republican Party on the other, and the pension agent exclaims: “What am I bid?”
At the time that cartoon was published, everybody knew exactly what that meant. It meant that the pension agent, who received a liberal commission for pensions which he was able to secure, was offering the soldier vote to the highest bidder of the two great political parties. There is within my own recollection a pension agent whose office was in my neighborhood. I remember people who sought him out and the thoroughly satisfactory income, which he appeared to be making from pressing their pension claims.
The United States was able to survive all the abuses that crept into the law as the result of the activity of organized pension agents, because of the phenomenal growth of the country and her industries and her population in the period that immediately followed the Civil War.
During the World War, President Wilson, a careful student of history, sought to protect the United States from the abuses that followed the Civil War by laying down a wise and farsighted plan for payments to soldiers. He began by obtaining a scale of payment for men in the service higher than anything ever paid before in this or in any other country. He established, as a further part of this program, the principle of full and complete care of those wounded or disabled during the war and those whose disabilities are traceable to the war, ‘full care and protection for widows and orphans of soldiers who lost their lives in the war, and a system of insurance for all veterans on a sound actuarial basis, with contributions by the Government and the veterans, so that, in 1917, Congress, desiring to avoid the abuses of our 100 years’ history of pensions, passed the war-risk insurance, disability and compensation act. This, as I have outlined, was planned to take care of veterans killed or injured in the line of duty, or their dependents, and to offer to all veterans term insurance upon an actuarial basis.
At the time that this program was put forth, it was accepted by the entire country, and the great army of American veterans subscribed to it 100 percent. In other countries it was regarded as the most generous plan of government cooperation in the pensioning and care of soldiers and their dependents ever offered in this or, for that matter, in any other Country. Within six years of the close of the World War, however, the bonus bill had been passed and hospitalization had been thrown open to veterans not disabled in line of duty.
When the Minority Rules
After the war, the organization of a formidable lobby not only brought about provision for Federal and state bonuses in addition to the other benefits, but the whole Wilson theory was scrapped by the large number of amendments to the veterans’ laws, all of which had for their purpose the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of veterans and their dependents, whose disabilities and other problems were not remotely connected with the war. It is a matter of fact, and can be proved — and let us hope that it will be — by the congressional committee charged with its investigation, that much of the huge sum now being paid is, in fact, given to men who never saw active service and to dependents of men who never had and never could have any legitimate claim on the Government.
Gradual changes in these laws have put the United States in the position of paying large sums every year to more than 400,000 veterans whose disabilities resulted from causes other than military or naval service. These figures have been issued by a group of veterans themselves, and have never been refuted. Undoubtedly they will form the basis for the congressional investigation, to take place in the fall, of all the statutes passed since the original Wilson plan was adopted by the country.
Now, it goes without saying that unless the rank and file of the American people, who must bear this burden through taxation, pay some attention to these statutes, organized groups will, from time to time, fasten new obligations upon the people, which will result in mounting costs, additional taxation and all the hardship growing from these. The return of prosperity by the encouragement of business and individuals to invest their money in commercial enterprises will thereby be the longer delayed.
It must be borne in mind that by no means all the veterans subscribe to this form of legislation. It is, in all human probability, the well-organized minority which has been successful in securing the enactment of these measures, which are entirely outside of the original program laid down, accepted by all, and adopted.
The real fact of the matter is that those in a position to know have made an unchallenged statement that 75 percent of the country’s veterans are not members of the American Legion and they may or may not agree with its views. This is in accordance with the history of the activity of the Grand Army of the Republic immediately following the Civil War. It presents another example of what can be accomplished in our country by the organization of a group, even though it may be a minority one. Nor is the American Legion the only active organization of veterans of the World War. There are a number of veterans’ organizations of the World War, to say nothing of those whose membership dates to other wars.
The Legion Falls in Line
Even the Legion as a whole, to do it justice, judging by the records of its conventions, came reluctantly to some of this program. At its first organization meeting in St. Louis, only a small minority favored a bonus payment to every soldier, and the plan was turned down. When a bonus resolution was introduced into the 1919 convention of the Legion, its action was reported as follows:
While the American Legion was not founded to promote legislation in its selfish interest, yet it recognizes that our Government has an obligation to all service men and women to relieve the financial disadvantages incidental to military service . . . but the Legion feels that it cannot ask for legislation in its selfish interest and leaves with confidence to Congress the discharge of this obligation.
It must have been the minority even in its own organization that finally forced it into action after the first bonus bill, entitled The Fourfold Adjusted Compensation Measure, was introduced in Congress. From that time on, through all its vicissitudes from 1920, through its postponement at President Harding’s request, and his veto of the bill when passed in 1922, until it was finally passed over President Coolidge’s veto in May, 1924, each successive Legion convention took a more and more decisive, positive and peremptory attitude.
This Adjusted Compensation Act was a compromise of the bonus idea. It gave extra compensation to every service man at the rate of a dollar for each day of home service and a dollar and a quarter for each day of overseas service. It limited the base amount to $500 for home service and $625 for overseas service. The money was to accumulate as an insurance fund for 20 years, the Government putting aside $112,000,000 a year to meet the total, which would be due in 20 years. The maximum amount due any one man would at that time be in the neighborhood of $1600. It was possible for veterans to borrow up to 22 percent of the full amount.
Agitating for Payment in Full
This compromise lasted for six years. Then came the business depression, and brought with it renewed demands to pay the full amount immediately and in full.
In February 1931, over President Hoover’s veto, a compromise was again made. It permitted veterans to borrow 50 percent of the face value of adjusted-compensation certificates. Nearly $1,500,000,000 has already been advanced in such loans, and the original purpose of using it as insurance has been defeated.
Nor was this enough. Agitation to pay all of it at once continued, and the President himself went to the last convention of the Legion at Detroit and succeeded in averting the demand temporarily. Still the Legion seemed to be ruled by indecision and was not unanimous. I quote an address made to the department commanders of the Legion at the end of 1931:
Now, on the so-called bonus legislation … some departments are for it, some are adamant against it, in some others a very close split. That is so right on throughout the Legion. Others cannot make up their minds as to what should be the proper procedure. … I do not think this Legion can afford to oppose the efforts of any group who are asking for the payment of the bonus, in full or in part.
At a very recent meeting of one of the Eastern departments of the Legion, resolutions were passed, from which I quote partially, which indicate that there is a growing consciousness in that organization of the situation and that they do not wish to be held responsible for all such abuses which they rightly say are often sponsored by other veteran organizations, “by politicians or by individuals, sentimental, thoughtless or self seeking.” In the resolution itself this department of the American Legion, to which I refer, “declares itself in favor of a return to the strict policy of liberal and just compensation to the actual dependents of those who lost their lives as a direct result of their war service, and compensation and care for those who were, in fact, disabled thereby; and declares itself opposed to all legislation giving special privileges, hospitalization and compensation to veterans or their dependents for death and disabilities not so incurred.”
Yet, in 1932, the bonus bill for full payment was passed in the House and defeated in the Senate. That is another evidence of the encouragement received by the bonus army in its advance on Washington. To cap the climax, President Hoover, on July 21, signed the bill, which broadens the power of veterans to borrow on their adjusted-service certificates and reduces the rate of interest charged by the Government on the money advanced. This will cost the Government an additional sum of $385,000,000, according to the Treasury statement.
How many people in the United States today have paid any attention to these various enactments as they have occurred since the time of President Harding up to the present? It is only when we run into a period of terrible depression and financial difficulty, when the burden of taxation means something to the people, that they begin to consider some of the things to which in the past they paid no attention whatever. In 1932 the people of the country have suddenly awakened to the burden placed upon them by additional taxation to meet the deficits in the Treasury of the United States, and are inquiring into the causes.
The Rising Tide of Relief Measures
In studying the Federal budget for 1933, let us pay some attention to the largest single item in it, which is for veterans’ relief. It amounted this year to $928,387,795, or approximately one-fourth of the total Federal appropriations for the conduct of the National Government in every detail. From the close of the war in 1918 to June 1931, more than $6,000,000,000 has been spent by the Federal Government in various forms of relief to veterans of the World War, their dependents and beneficiaries. State governments acting by themselves, either for hospitalization, special acts for relief of veterans or direct bonus, have spent more than $580,000,000 additional.
Statisticians have figured out that by 1945, only 13 years from date, the Government will have spent $23,500,000,000, even under existing relief commitments. It is noteworthy that this sum is practically equivalent to the total cost of this country’s actual participation in the war. Twenty years later, if Congress maintains the existing laws and should add the new laws, which are proposed by veterans’ organizations, the veterans will be costing the American people annually, not one-quarter of the present cost of the Federal Government but the whole of the cost of the present Government, which is close to $5,000,000,000.
There is probably no group in the United States today that would be more resentful of a dole system than would the American Legion and those veterans of the World War not members of it, but it is, nevertheless, the fact that the general tendency of all legislation changing the basis of veterans’ relief has had for its purpose diverting increasing amounts to men who suffered no disability due to war service. Veterans’ relief in this respect is certainly in danger of becoming a thinly disguised dole system. As a matter of fact, the United States spends in a single year nearly twice as much for veterans’ relief as the British Government spent in 11 years for its unemployment insurance — its so-called dole.
Unless and until all the facts are known, public men will be besieged on all sides by people who, for sentimental reasons, are with the soldiers without any understanding of what is sought to be done. I have had my personal experience. After I spoke about this situation in a nation-wide hook-up over the radio on May 16 of this year, I received a great many letters from well-meaning people finding fault with me for my attitude, and the general tenor of the letters was along the line that I was out of sympathy with the veterans and unwilling to be with the country in its attempt to take care of them. Of course, nothing could be farther from the fact. These letters came from people who, on the one hand, are finding fault with the cost of the Government and, on the other hand, finding fault with those who would point out injustice and inequalities and waste and extravagance because of the enactments fostered by an organized lobby and not approved even by the American Legion itself.
When Taxicabs Are War Risks
For instance, how many people know that under existing statutes a man who served for 90 days in an American cantonment and who never left this country, but received an honorable discharge at the close of the World War, if he was unable to pay income tax for a full year before he applies for relief, might be injured in a taxicab and, sustaining a permanent injury, become the beneficiary of a pension, ranging from $12 to $40 a month, during the rest of his natural life? One of the proposed enactments, passed in the House of Representatives, but defeated in the Senate, would grant a pension to the widow of a soldier whom she may have married any time after the war, upon his death from natural causes not traceable in any respect to his service to the country. He may also have been one who had never left the United States, but received an honorable discharge.
Headaches in the Pension Systems
In a recent publication, the example is cited of a former soldier who, for example, may get recurring headaches in 1923. He is told that if they can be traced to a wartime origin he can be paid for them. He then recalls that while unloading potatoes in training camp, a sack hit him on the head. He looks about for witnesses to support his story, and since the Government cannot prove that his headaches do not date from the potato-sack episode, he becomes the recipient of a monthly allowance.
The Disabled Emergency Officers’ Retirement Act, passed in 1928, awarded three-quarters retirement pay to civilians who were officers in the World War and who are now considered to be 30 percent permanently disabled because of their war service. Some 6000-odd emergency officers of this category are at the present time drawing an average of $139 a month. One of the ways this operates is shown in the case of a physician who receives a salary of $8000 from the Veterans’ Bureau. In view of his service as an emergency officer in the war, he requested a disability record. He was examined by the staff of the bureau, found partially disabled, and awarded $150 a month. Another doctor, earning $5000 a year as examining physician for the bureau, had himself examined, declared unfit for work and placed on the retired list; consequently, he gets, in addition to this salary, $125 a month.
I have not gone into the problems of preference to veterans in the civil-service laws of the nation and the various states, because I wish to deal here with the economic phase of the situation and the financial injustices brought about by these laws.
There is a vast difference in responsibility for the care of injured and disabled veterans who met with their disability in the war or who thereafter were rendered helpless or died from causes directly traceable to the war. They should be provided for to the limit of the country’s ability. Their dependents should also be cared for. It is an entirely different matter to pass out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to men — to say nothing of their dependents — who received no injury in the war, who saw no real service and who incurred no disability as a result of their enlistment under the colors of their country, pursuant to the call of the President.
It is, to say the least, a bit discouraging to the youth of the country to think that the high and idealistic patriotism spoken of during the time of the war is sought to be cashed in dollars and cents when the war is over by a small percentage of the people, who, in the height and glory of the situation calling for the defense of the flag and the principles for which it stands, were ready to take their place beside Nathan Hale, who regretted that he had only one life to give for his country.
When Leaders Are Misled
The distressing part of this whole thing is that it seems, to me, to be like a snowball going downhill. As it is encouraged, it gathers strength and momentum, and I am afraid that the public authorities in Washington have not heard the real facts from those in control. On the other hand, those agitating for these additional benefits have been encouraged by the attempt of the House of Representatives to make their pilgrimage to Washington successful. Every one of those who came to Washington with the bonus army must know of the present economic situation. Every one of them must have heard of the universal distress in all parts of the country; and certainly they would not, if their patriotism is genuine, desire to be made a favored class of the community to receive relief at the expense of countless millions just as unfortunate in their present position as they are. They were petitioning the Government, a fundamental American right.
The Government made no reply to the petition, as far as anybody is able to see, and, on the other hand, they were sufficiently encouraged to permit the situation to become so aggravated that the United States was compelled to assert its sovereignty by the force of arms.
In times of stress a great many well-meaning people — and they will be found particularly in the ranks of men willing to offer themselves to the Government in times of need — are ready victims of a false and misleading propaganda flowing from people who may not, deep in their hearts, have any great regard for the veteran himself, but who would seize upon such a gathering as the bonus marchers as an opportunity to give vent to some political doctrine contrary to the principles upon which this Government is founded. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the marchers who left the various big cities to camp in Washington were encouraged on their way by groups who had not themselves the desire or the courage to face the hardships.
It certainly must have encouraged the organized minority to have the economy bill suggested by the President — though only a drop in the bucket, with its possible saving of about 5 percent of the total veterans’ appropriations — entirely disregarded by the House of Representatives and immediately thereafter to find the House passing, without debate of any kind, a new bill to include “widows and children of deceased war veterans who die of a disability not acquired in the service.” This legislation, if adopted, would have added a further burden to the American people of $100,000,000 in the next five years, and more thereafter.
How many people in the United States today, paying these additional taxes, suffering silently because of their imposition, hidden and unforeseen victims of an impost on capital that prevents it from pouring its money into the channels of trade and increasing the chances for employment, really realize that the House of Representatives not only refused to relieve but voted to add to their burden?
Robbing the Just for the Unjust
I desire to have myself placed clearly and fairly on the record. I believe that unfair, unjust and inequitable payments to veterans who are not deserving tends to operate against the deserving veteran. It is impossible for any group to receive veterans’ benefits unjustly and unfairly without interfering with that group which is justly entitled to every single thing that this Government can do for them.
In my speech before the Jefferson Day dinner at Washington on April 13, this year, I made the definite suggestion that Congress should publicly air the whole question of veterans’ relief. I had in my mind not only economic but substantial justice to the deserving veteran as against a waste of public money to the organized group which succeeded in securing laws beneficial to those who were not entitled, by any stretch of the human imagination, to the money of the people of the United States.
Yet I deplore the published information that the investigation of the veterans’ laws by the joint congressional committee is to be delayed to a point where right and proper consideration cannot be given to it prior to the convening of Congress. It appears that the committee has notified at least one organization of veterans that it will not meet until the latter part of November, although it is to report to Congress on January 1, 1933.
Recently there has been organized a National Economy League, which is a nonpartisan citizens’ organization stating its general purpose: “To revive and restore the American principle that our Government shall truly be a Government for the benefit of the whole people — a Government of law and order economically administered for all the people, and not for the benefit or at the dictation of any special or sectional interest.” Though their immediate objective is to attempt to eliminate the abuses, which have crept into the administration of veterans’ laws generally, they state they desire, “to cooperate with other nonpartisan citizens’ organizations concerned with the reduction of governmental expenses and taxes.”
Veterans and Party Platforms
Their membership and their advisory board entitle them to the respectful consideration of thoughtful American citizens. I cite their advisory board because that should inspire confidence in the nonpartisanship and disinterestedness of the body. It contains Elihu Root, who, having been signally honored during his lifetime by the people of his own state, to say nothing of the Federal Government, must certainly be considered to speak for this country as a whole; Calvin Coolidge, honored by election to the presidency, must also be admitted to be able to speak for the country; Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War, progressive, able and thoroughly acquainted with the problem from his personal experience in aiding with the drafting of the early legislation of President Wilson; Rear Admiral Sims and General Pershing, who must certainly have at heart the good of the men who served under them; I leave myself to the last because I am not actuated by any motive other than what is best for the whole country and all its people, including its veterans.
Another vital consideration at the present moment is where the two major parties stand with reference to this question. The Republican platform, citing the achievements of the Republican Party for the benefit of veterans and other dependents, ends the section dealing with the subject by saying:
Disability from causes subsequent and not attributable to war and the support of dependents of deceased veterans whose death is unconnected with war, have been to some measure accepted obligations of the nation as a part of the debt due.
A careful study should be made of existing veterans’ legislation with a view to eliminating inequalities and injustices and effecting all possible economies, but without departing from our purpose to provide on a sound basis full and adequate relief for our service-disabled men, their widows and orphans.
The Democratic platform is brief on the subject. It merely says:
We advocate the full measure of justice and generosity for all war veterans who have suffered disability or disease caused by or resulting from actual service in time of war, and for their dependents.
So much for the platforms. The American people have a right to know where the candidates stand. Let us have pretty plain talk — the American people are entitled to hear it. They should not only be afforded opportunity for study of what has happened in the past, and its relationship to the whole question of public money, but they are entitled to know what their candidates for high office intend to recommend with respect to the future.
There can be no mistake about the gratitude of the American people to the soldiers. Individual states, irrespective of Federal statutes, in the outpouring of their gratitude, incurred large bonded indebtedness for the purpose of showing the states’ individual gratitude to the soldiers who enlisted. In my own state of New York, the people themselves, by their own act, amended their Constitution so that they might bond the state for $45,000,000 to be distributed to the veterans of the World War who enlisted from the state of New York.
Nobody can question the feeling of the people generally for the veteran, but when the burden becomes so great that it oppresses everybody, these forms of gratuities and compensation that are not actually related to the disability or suffering as a result of the World War should be stricken out, and undoubtedly would not be found in the Federal statutes if it were not for the organized lobby.
Where Government Aid Belongs
It is also undoubtedly true that the veteran has a spirit of patriotism, and he must stand in the position of being entirely unwilling to have improper payments made for the benefit of less than 5 percent of the people of the United States when that relief must fall directly or indirectly upon 120,000,000 people through taxation.
I am satisfied that I reflect the opinion of a great majority of the veterans that they were fighting for a great principle when they offered themselves in defense of the flag of our country. They were striking at those who would question the sovereignty, the dignity and the majesty of the greatest republic in the world. They could not have had in their minds the fact that they were later to become favored charges upon the Government.
As to the men who were disabled, again I say, with emphasis: To those who were killed, to their relatives and their dependents and beneficiaries, the gratitude of the American people cannot even be expressed in dollars. For them, I say, everything; but, for those accidental beneficiaries of an organized lobby, it is time to call a halt.
I earnestly hope that a time will never come when the people of the United States will be lacking in expression of their gratitude to the men who offered themselves to the country in her time of trouble, but we must, of necessity, realize that this organized effort on the part of representatives of an organized group must cease when they go beyond the limits of justice, fair dealing and fair play to the rank and file of the American people who must foot the bills.
When I joined the Army as a 17-year-old, I expected to face many challenges and hardships as an individual — whether that meant getting yelled at or shot at or made to jump out of airplanes. What I didn’t yet understand was how much I’d put aside my individual concerns and focus on my fellow service members — or how much they’d do the same for me. The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.
That might sound odd to people who’ve never been in the military. Getting chewed out for not having shoes shined hardly seems supportive to most people. But that’s just one part of the military experience. In the Army, it mattered to someone else whether my boots fit properly. It mattered to someone else whether I had been to the dentist recently. It mattered to someone else if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be at the right time. To be sure, all of this attention paid to my performance was in the interest of team performance, but it also meant someone was always there for me.
And then you exit the service. No more intrusive surprise health and welfare inspections. No more grueling runs and setting your speed to the slowest member of your group. No more morning formations. No more of the countless bureaucratic irritations of military life. Paradise, right?
Actually, for many of us, no. Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone is that strong sense of social security. Gone are friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs.
News reports carry a lot of disheartening statistics about U.S. Veterans. (Like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, I capitalize the word Veterans to be respectful.) Nearly a fifth of Veterans between 18 and 24 are jobless. Veterans suffer a 33 percent higher rate of narcotics overdoses than the rest of the population, and their suicide rate is slightly higher, too. People often react to this with pity, assuming that the cause is tied to trauma suffered while in the service.
But I suspect that the main contributor to adjusting to civilian life is something else entirely, and rarely is it because of battle trauma. Rather, when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.
One friend went from being a combat medic in the Army to a transfer student in the health field at a major university. He got good grades, but none of his efforts to connect with his new peers and replace the social cohesion he was missing worked. He nearly wound up dropping out of school. Simply put, he felt isolated and adrift. Another friend, a smart, capable Marine, floundered when discharged from the service around the time of her divorce. For a stretch she was even homeless. What rescued her was a stint with AmeriCorps, the federal community service organization, which gave her a job that led to full-time employment with a national nonprofit. AmeriCorps offered my friend three crucial things: a new mission, a new purpose, and a strong, supportive social network in which people were invested in one another’s well-being and success. That allowed her to get back on her feet.
Those who have served in the military are resilient, capable leaders. Veterans aren’t looking for a handout and certainly don’t want to be pitied. If civilian life could offer Veterans more of the virtues of military life — accountability, cohesion, a sense of purpose — I suspect you’d hear less about the “problems” Veterans face and more about the achievements that come from harnessing such vast energy, discipline, and public spirit.
Its official name, when passed by Congress in June of 1944, was the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, but it was soon renamed “the G.I. Bill of Rights.” While it provided several benefits to the veterans returning from World War II, the best remembered was the Reserve Education Assistance Program. Stanley Frank described the benefit in an August 18 issue of the Post:
Any man who has served in the armed forces for ninety days can attend for a year any approved school or college, and if he was less than twenty-five years of age at induction he is entitled to these benefits for a period equal to his military service after September 16, 1940, for a maximum of four years. The Government pays all bills for tuition and fees up to $500 a year.
It is a splendid bill, a wonderful bill, with only one conspicuous drawback. The guys aren’t buying it. They say “education” means “books,” any way you slice it, and that’s for somebody else. [“The G.I.’s Reject Education,” Stanley Frank, August 18, 1945]
He was right—partially, and only briefly.
As of February 1, 1945, only 12,844 discharged veterans throughout the country, in a total of 1,500,000, were attending schools under the G. I. Bill. Less than 1 per cent.
Frank had interviewed G.I.s at two veterans hospitals and found them anxious to get home and back to work as quickly as possible. Only 10% showed interest in further education. Most of these soon dropped out of the program.
Boiling down the figures, about 2 per cent of the amputees and neurosurgical cases—those who need it most—indicate an intention of having a go at serious, brain-building learning.
United States Army statistics prove that though [public education] has been free it hasn’t been popular. Only 23.3 per cent of the troops finished high school, and 3.6 per cent are college graduates. The average American soldier left school in the tenth grade, but … there are 5,000,000 in the armed forces who failed to graduate from grammar school.
Frank suggested the problem wasn’t schools, but “unchanging human nature”—i.e., most men don’t want to plan very far ahead in life.
We are, perhaps expecting too much of the tired, bewildered, embittered soldier, disassociated as he has been from civilian life, in asking him to plan his career. In normal times, most people have modest ambitions and are content to drift with the tide, evading responsibility if they can.
Though the college-benefit program had been in effect for a short time, some Post editor already saw the education benefit as a giant waste of taxpayer’s money.
Yet, by early the next year, there were signs of a general shift in Americans’ attitude toward education. Civilian adults, like the returning veterans, wanted to make up for the opportunities they’d lost during the war, and the Depression before it. Early in 1946, the Post reported “facilities of the country’s adult-education program are creaking under the load as [Americans] enroll by the hundreds of thousands.”
If, citizens have reasoned, a university can help practicing physicians, engineers, and so on, keep up to date, why can’t it tackle things that have ordinary folks stopped in their tracks?
A Gallup poll last spring indicated that 34 per cent of the adult population—25,000,000 folks—had the impulse to take advantage of part-time educational facilities after the war. [“Look Who’s Going To School Now!” Harold Titus, Feb. 9, 1946]
And just one year after the Post reported G.I.’s rejected education, it ran “Crisis at the Colleges.”
Heads of American colleges … are confronted with a reality that has always been a democratic dream: the opportunity to raise the educational attainments of a solid chunk of a whole generation. Because of the Government subsidy to servicemen, the opportunity is here; men who could never come to college under ordinary circumstances are enrolling or knocking at the doors.
[However] the colleges do not have the facilities, the housing, the instructors, or classrooms to handle [the opportunity]. The primary, the immediate, the all-important, problem is housing.
Thousands of eligible veterans were turned away last September because the colleges had no place to quarter them; thousands more were turned away in February at the beginning of the second semester. And yet the enrollment of veterans rose immensely because the colleges did find some place, some way, to house some of them.
Here was the situation at Illinois during the second half of the school year. Total undergraduate enrollment at Urbana … was 12,780. This is more students than ever attended there before. … Total veteran undergraduate enrollment was 5509.
There were veterans living in basements, veterans in garrets, veterans in made-over garages and abandoned filling stations. There were 300 sleeping in double-decker beds in the gaunt building known as the Old Gymnasium Annex.
Gone is the campus where every prospect pleases… Cruelest blows to academic serenity are the clotheslines behind the trailers and prefabricated houses. Along with the leaves of the traditional whispering maples there are, diapers and children’s underpants blowing in the wind.
By the time the program ended in 1956, it had helped 2.2 million Americans attend college and another 6.6 million receive training.
It would be hard to over-estimate the effect on this country made by this wave of America’s college-educated G.I.s. It enabled these men to lead the changing industries of the post-war world. It also produced a higher expectation for education in the American public; a 10th-grade education became less socially acceptable in the growing middle class.
The G.I.-Bill generation passed its faith in education on to the next generation, which passed on to their children. It is still an article of faith to many Americans today despite the low employment rate of college graduates.
Americans aren’t always aware of the debt they owe military veterans, but they’ll usually be reminded of the subject on Veterans Day. The treatment of veterans also gets re-examined at the end of every war, when the country considers what will happen to all its returning veterans. By the time this year ends, all American soldiers in Iraq will have returned home after an eight-year war. Hundreds of thousands of American veterans will be eligible for a variety of benefits from the Veterans Administration, such as medical care, job training, housing support, and education funding for vets and their families.
We’ve come a long way in the past century, when the government discharged veterans with little help to resume their lives and careers, and Americans viewed their return as a challenge to their standard of living. As a Post editorial observed,
In time, millions of Americans will be released from military service and return to civil life… [already] war’s enormous demands upon industry are diminishing or have ceased.
A good many people are disturbed over that prospect.
Various expedients have been suggested—some of them admirable, such as reclaiming more land for agriculture by irrigation, drainage, and so on. [“Demobilizing” Nov. 30, 1918]
The expedient to which they referred was the land-reclamation project launched by Franklin K. Lane, the Secretary of the Interior. The Post offered Lane’s own explanation of the project:
“These boys will come back. How are we to meet them? They will be proud; they will have seen the world as we have never been able to see it; they will have a spirit that we will envy and a comradeship that we can never have.We do not want to give them charity. We could not if we wanted to.
“[However] we have approximately from 200 million to 250 million acres of land at present unused which can be made as productive as any agricultural land in the world.
“It is an easy thing to do. The land is there; and we should say to the boys… ‘Here is a job at your hand; current wages, four dollars a day, if you please. Go; build dams on the Colorado Rivera. Go; redeem swamps in Southern Maryland. Go; clear the lands in Northern Michigan.” [“When the Boys Get Back From France,” Nov. 30, 1918]
The ultimate goal was to create new farm land in the western states, which veterans could buy with a 10% down payment.
“[The veteran-farmer] will add to the wealth of the nation; but he will add far more than the physical wealth—he will add a richness of life and independence of spirit, and have in his heart always gladness, because he…found on his return that he had come back to a republic that was not ungrateful.
“The opportunity is…to bring the land and the soldier together, to provide work and homes for hundreds of thousands of American citizens, to furnish a supply of foodstuffs sufficient for our growing population.”
It was an admirable idea to many, but Emerson Hough, the Post’s “Out-Of-Doors” columnist, saw it as a threat to the wilderness.
Secretary Lane’s reclamation idea is born out of this war. It surely will tend to kill American outdoor sports.
The interior Department has taken stock of every acre of wild land in America—marsh, forest, desert or foothill. Millions of acres of unused lands have been discovered which are now to be utilized—
Surely this means that the last of the American wild places are to be used as soon as possible. The last resort of wild game—the last home of the last bird and beast—is to be cleared, drained, plowed and planted. Enter industry; exit game; exit sport. Enter a new country and new philosophy of all work and no play—unless that shall be play in some rich man’s yard.
It [could mean] the growth of the law of trespass; a future of less and less open sport in America.[“Sport After the War,” March 1, 1918]
Both Lane and Hough were wrong.
The wilderness did not disappear. The hydroelectric projects did not destroy the beauty of places like
Jackson Lake in Jackson Hole, as Hough declared they would. Even more land was set aside for national parks, making the wilderness open to more Americans.
Lane’s hope for a new generation of veteran-farmers never materialized either. When the Federal government stopped buying food for the war effort, farmers had surplus crops at the 1918 and 1919 harvest. Prices dropped. Farms failed. New farms made in the high plains of the Dakotas, Montana, and Colorado quickly depleted the soil, adding to the number of farm failures. In 1920, for the first time, more Americans lived in towns and cities than farms.
Instead of choosing careers for veterans, today’s GI benefits help veterans pursue their own futures. And have proven a much wiser investment.