On any given day, somewhere in America, there is a high school or college graduate contemplating service in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard. He or she is likely basing that decision on factors like income, career path, education benefits, the pride of wearing a uniform or escaping the doldrums of a depressed socioeconomic situation. Most will be too young to remember the September 11th attacks; but they have become accustomed—perhaps even desensitized—to news of conflict and casualties, to a point of banality. By now, they’ve also gotten used to seeing veterans in wheelchairs or with missing limbs, severe burns and disfiguring injuries. Yet, these young people still walk into recruiting offices across the country and give thought to serving our country.
What these young people do not know, however, is that the uniform will make them the very currency America uses to pay for its might and freedom. Those who see combat for the first time will suddenly realize it’s much different than playing Call of Duty on their gaming systems. There are no second or third lives, no bonus points or super weapons. Just skill, luck and fate. Many will be exposed to the everyday hazards of military life. Prolonged lead exposure on rifle ranges and jet fuel on air fields. Running for miles in jungle boots in full gear and jumping from aircraft as high as 30,000 feet; giving the cartilage, bones and muscles in their legs and spines all they can handle—and then some. The most unlucky ones will die or become severely disabled in training accidents, both overseas and stateside, and there will be no decorations for valor in those cases.
Most will end their journeys after four years or 20 years, or somewhere in between, with an honorable discharge. That day will signify an end to their part of the bargain they made with this country, and the beginning of our part of that same bargain: To care for those who served, who bore the battle, and those who supported them on the Homefront. The contract between America and her protectors did not contain disclaimers or fine print that said, “only if the money is available,” or “terms subject to change,” or “provided the government later deems your service worthy.”
In contract terms, the consideration that young man or woman had when contemplating the terms of the recruiting contract were the benefits following military service: healthcare, education assistance, home loan guaranty, life insurance, peer support, the gratitude of a nation, and yes, monetary benefits to compensate one who has lost some or all degree of normal socioeconomic viability as well as help those living on the margins of society. The consideration the country had was the risk of life and limb in harm’s way—at least for the less than one percent of the population who served after 9/11 and the seven percent of those currently living who ever served.
Any talk on Capitol Hill or at VA Central Office about reducing those benefits or using changes in eligibility to reduce the number of veterans who are presently entitled to those benefits teeters not just on a breach of contract, but also on a breach of the public trust. When VA Secretary David Shulkin said during a June 23, 2017 forum in Washington, DC, and the Military Times reported, that it is time to rethink a veteran disability system that “incentivizes disability,” many people, including veterans, were listening and now await further explanation.
Those high school and college graduates sitting somewhere in America are waiting too; wondering if the life-changing contract before them will remain valid once they sign on the dotted line, and even after they serve.
Sherman Gillums Jr. is a paralyzed Marine Corps veteran and the Executive Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America