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Veterans not a political chew toy

By Paul Rieckhoff, Special to CNN
updated 9:45 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Rieckhoff: Shutdown hit veterans, outraged the nation. Government made quick fix
  • He says politicians never in the service were quick to use incident for political gain
  • He says veterans who serve nation are budget battle hostages. They've had enough
  • Rieckhoff: Next budget battle looms. Vets deserve better than to be used in politcal games

Editor's note: Paul Rieckhoff is an Iraq veteran, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of "Chasing Ghosts." Follow him on Twitter @PaulRieckhoff.

(CNN) -- The recent 16-day government shutdown hit many Americans hard. But few groups were hit harder than our troops and veterans.

As the threat of another shutdown and debt ceiling fight loom in the months ahead, politicians would do well to remember the public anger that accompanied the events of the last few weeks. Their petty political games put tremendous stress on a small group of people who've already shouldered unprecedented stress over more than a decade of war.

When the shutdown brought news of suspended death gratuity benefits for families of troops killed in action, it spread with a speed usually only reserved for a Miley Cyrus video. The country was outraged. Overnight, the Pentagon cut a deal with the nonprofit Fisher House to provide $100,000 payments to families, while a bill landed on the president's desk in a quick 48 hours. Our nation's troops and veterans quickly emerged as the government shutdown's most valuable hostages.

Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff

A group of World War II veterans visiting Washington on Day 1 of the shutdown were told that they would not be allowed to visit their Memorial. Undeterred, members of our Greatest Generation peacefully pushed through barriers and refused to be stopped by yellow park police tape or a broken bureaucracy.

It was a powerful, spontaneous moment. And political opportunists pounced.

Shutdown leaders arrived within minutes. Politicians who had never served in uniform themselves and didn't focus on the benefits for millions of veterans that were being jeopardized by the shutdown were quick to make statements like "Our veterans should be above political games." So said a politician using vets for political games.

Well, we've had enough.

Ever since 9/11, and maybe as far back as the revolution, veterans have been America's favorite political chew-toy. Both parties love to tout how much they support the troops. And presidents from both parties have stood in front of a wall of young people in camouflage to make political speeches. But when it comes to actually delivering for us, most Washington leaders have been AWOL. At no time was that more apparent than over the last few weeks.

Five million men and women who receive disability and GI Bill benefits worried whether they'd get their next check. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs furloughed 9,000 employees and suspended services. And more than 400,000 veterans already stuck in the shameful VA disability backlog were forced to wait even longer. Claims processors were furloughed, regional offices were closed, mandatory overtime was halted, and progress on the VA's new technology processing system stopped. Nonprofit groups like ours saw a 500% increase in demand for our assistance programs overnight.

The shutdown also damaged our national security. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the shutdown completely irresponsible as thousands of Reservists and National Guardsmen had training drills canceled. This had a profound impact on their family finances, as many folks depend on that drill pay to keep food on the table. But they were also no longer training for war. And it wasn't exactly a morale boost for 60,000 troops serving in Afghanistan to read that if they were killed their families might not get enough money to fly to meet their coffin in Dover.

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This was not our country's first government shutdown. But it was the first government shutdown while our country was at war.

But beyond being a political football, veterans have long been our nation's conscience. In a time when so few have served, we represent the best of America. The world saw that last week, as President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to former Army Capt. William Swenson. His courage and selfless service was a shocking contrast to everything else we've seen out of Washington lately. The values and sacrifices of our veterans are admired and respected. But unfortunately, our voice rarely is.

There are no World War II veterans left in the Senate and only one from Vietnam, and fewer veterans serving in Congress than at any point in American history. In years past, World War II veterans from different parties, like Bob Dole and Frank Lautenberg, frequently were able to find common ground and cooperation in a shared understanding that they had put their lives on the line for their country. These old warriors were the ones who often bridged the petty political fights in Washington. And their loss has never been felt more than right now.

But our veterans refuse to be silent about our nation's future. And we don't need politicians to speak for us. That's why we spoke for ourselves at the same World War II memorial last Tuesday.

In an unprecedented display of unity, the 33 leading national veterans and military organizations that make up The Military Coalition stood together to demand an end to the shutdown. Our message to Washington politicians was simple: We did our jobs; now do yours.

We're glad that Washington heard our voices and ended the shutdown. Yet, last week's deal only keeps the government open until January. Veterans are right to wonder if we'll be the victims of political games again soon.

Our country needs to be led out of a recession, through a war, and on to brighter days. All Americans, not just our veterans, deserve better from our elected leaders.

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, and Leaders Reid and McConnell: Stop with the games and self-inflicted wounds. It's time to really put our country first.

As we say in the Army: Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Rieckhoff.

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