Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who Speaks For Veterans? By Robert McNultry

Who Speaks For Veterans? By Robert McNultry

The United States Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued a report early April suggesting that current political and economic conditions are energizing right-wing extremist groups, that many of these groups follow extremely conservative ideologies and that some may seek to recruit and “radicalize” veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many of us, as Vietnam veterans, can remember being demonized by the media upon our return and it’s hard not to see these type of reports as a furtherance of that period in our lives. It's 2009, and we now have a bunch of new veterans demonized once again, not just in the news or in television programs developed along the crazed Iraq veteran plot line, but by our Homeland Security Department.

According to a "For Official Use Only" DHS report, "right wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to recruit and exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat."

As could be predicted, some conservatives and some veterans groups reacted by throwing a fit, twisting the report’s meaning to imply that they, and more importantly our war heroes, were being vilified by a partisan document. Some will think that once again the anti-war crowd has decided to blame the troops. Many veterans misinterpreted that real world assessment as a blanket accusation that every service member or veteran should be placed on a terrorist watch list, or worse, are threats to the United States. Nowhere in the report does it say that veterans will become right wing extremists. It does say that veterans will be targeted by right wing extremists to join their cartel. 

That is a substantial difference.

The reality is that while only a tiny number of conservatives and veterans are members of hate groups, nearly all hate groups do indeed follow far-right ideology. And they covet members with military experience. Is that tarring everyone with the same brush or is that stating the obvious in a less than delicate fashion regardless of the risk of inflaming the veterans community?

A report issued last summer by former President Bush’s F.B.I. entitled “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11” said that “military experience is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement” and that these groups “have attempted to increase their recruitment of current and former U.S. military personnel.” It did not have the wide-spread distribution and therefore the response was muted in comparison to the latest report by DHS.

So, which soldiers are most vulnerable? According to the Homeland Security report, it would probably be those “facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities.” This could be a large group because far too many soldiers come back from war broken men. According to a RAND study released on April 17th, 2009 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reported some sign of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. The report indicated that only about half of those will seek help and only half of those seeking it will receive “minimally adequate” treatment.

These soldiers could prove fertile ground for men hoping to prey on their fear, loneliness and dispossession. According to the F.B.I. report, “although individuals with military backgrounds constitute a small percentage of white supremacist extremists, they frequently occupy leadership roles.” This means that extremist leaders may be able to connect more easily with some of these soldiers because many were soldiers themselves.

Because many know firsthand the value of military experience, they not only recruit those leaving the military, they send recruits into it. According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Many white supremacists over the years have pushed their followers to join the military and enter either the Special Forces, where the training is judged to be the best in the world, or the infantry, where you will learn the skills necessary to fight the coming race war.” If they only recruit a few, that is still too many. Terrorists have shown the world time and again that a few well-trained men is all it takes.

Maybe the debate we should be having is about the best way to protect our newest veterans from falling prey to the significant challenges they face reintegrating into their communities. If this results in a reduction on the availability of potential recruits for hate groups or radicals or terrorists, great. The focus needs to be on increasing efforts to provide our returning men and women with all the care we can provide them in return for what we have asked them to undertake on our behalf.

Veterans returning from war are not new. Nor is the reintegration problem new. An August 1976 Washington Post article by (now) Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., summed up well the real plight of any veteran “I don't need to elaborate . . . how incredibly difficult it has been for the Vietnam veteran. His anonymity and lack of positive feedback about himself and his fellow veterans have intensified all the other difficulties he has faced, including those shared by nonveterans. With the exception of a few well-publicized disaster stories, he is invisible.”

It might make more sense to face the reality that there are a number of reports beyond the current DHS and FBI report that give rise to concern about the problems facing our nation. They are not the first and invariably more will follow. We can create a stink about them or we can use them as a clarion call to gather our veterans’ advocates to work together to ensure our veterans and military members get the care they need.

There is no reason to disregard trends and potential threats just because someone has worn a uniform or possesses a certain ideology? There is no reason to ignore facts. There is no reason to continue to promote the idea that we should not speak of situations that may rise to the concern of the security of our citizens just because those individuals at one time were in the armed forces. 

By the same token, those who have defended our country should never be singled out as possible threats to its stability. Our veterans deserve the praise of a grateful nation, not its scorn.

We can argue that the DHS assessment report should have been better written, should have mentioned law enforcement professionals with paramilitary training, and did not question the service or patriotism of any veteran. It did point out that rightwing extremist groups want to recruit veterans and learn military tactics, something that did not surprise most of us.

Intelligence assessments are meant to address possible threats based on historical facts, current trends and potential scenarios. Such assessments cannot be restricted by political correctness or fear that someone's feelings may be hurt. In a press release, VFW National Commander Glen Gardner put it in context well when he noted the report proves that DHS is doing its job, which is to protect America and Americans. "A government that does not assess internal and external security threats would be negligent of a critical public responsibility," he said.

The mention of our veterans in this list of potential threats should be a wake-up call to the nation. Their service must be honored, and their return to civilian life should be eased by ensuring that the services, which they have earned, are available to them. Their wounds, both physical and mental, should be attended to as a top priority by the American people, and they should be given every help in reintegrating into American society.

No longer should they be forced to join the ranks of the homeless. No longer should they be haunted by the demons of PTSD or TBI from their experiences on the battlefield.

We can rattle our sabers about reports from DHS, the FBI, and the Southern Poverty Law Center; the list goes on and on. Why don’t we consider turning our attention to the unmet needs of our veterans, the broken promises that have continued to exist in regards to our veteran community, the unfinished work that needs to be completed so that we can declare that we have met the challenge to address the needs of those who have served and continued to serve our great nation. Rest assured it will involve more work than finding fault with the latest unprofessional report to come out of Washington.

It is not enough to apologize for slurring a group that should be receiving our highest praise. Our returning veterans should be our top priority. Only when they receive the respect and services that they have earned will an apology be accepted. Profiling is unacceptable to those who serve their country in harm’s way.

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