Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

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.

Obama vows better education for veterans
CEO's talk job creation
Troy Polamalu to cut his famous hair

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT