Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Veterans not a political chew toy

By Paul Rieckhoff, Special to CNN
November 4, 2013 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT