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 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT