When James added his signature to the enlistment form, his Army recruiter leaned across the desk and shook his hand. He told him the decision he had made represented an honorable commitment to his country, and that he should wear the military uniform with pride and dignity.
Less than three months later, after having completed the rigorous training at "Ranger School," his commanding officer pulled him aside and informed him he had been selected to participate in a special ops program -- he was the most qualified candidate to accomplish the mission’s objectives.
The specialized training he received was short but intense, and before the month had ended, he was airdropped behind enemy lines, landing in the middle of a rice paddy, deep inside the jungles of Cambodia. His orders were to operate as a lone “wolf,” laying landmines along transportation routes that serviced the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to use his considerable military skills to identify and disrupt illegal sanctuaries.
Warning: This scene contains a graphic description of military death.
It was during a one-day mission to destroy a supply route that he chanced upon an American soldier suspended from a tall tree. The Viet Cong, who had hung him by his feet, had made a long incision across his back, pulling his intestines through the opening to inflict a slow and painful death.
The G.I. pleaded with James to kill him. He knew he was dying, and he told James a speedy death would be more merciful than a quick call for help. But James balked. How could he kill a fellow American? The two soldiers quarreled for a long time, but eventually the dying man triumphed by forcing James to acknowledge that a rescue operation would take longer to plan and implement than it would take for him to suffer an agonizing death.
When at last, the soldier screamed out in pain, James unholstered his pistol and put a bullet through his head.
He never knew the man’s name, but he never forgot his face. Even in his sleep.
James's assignment ended shortly after that.
A day after suffering a gunshot wound to his shoulder, he was ordered to return to the United States. It was only then, in the country where he had been born and raised that he sustained the most painful wound to be inflicted during his short stint in the military: he discovered the country that he had loved since birth had deserted him.
He did not recognize America. Attitudes had changed, and when his airplane touched down at Langley Air Force Base, he learned that two days earlier, four students had been killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State. He had come home to a deeply divided country during a time of great upheaval.
There were no parades. No one extended a hand of gratitude for his service.
Several days later, when he was discharged from the military and transported to DFW Airport, no one from the military was there to greet him; no one from the government felt it important enough to see that he received adequate treatment for the wounds he had suffered to his soul.
The message was clear: he was on his own.
It would take over twenty years before Congress would enact a comprehensive piece of legislation to treat the memories that haunted him.
But unfortunately, the help he needed came too late.
When he tried to resume civilian life, he found his mind didn’t function the same way it had before he had enlisted. He was restless, and he couldn’t concentrate. Each day — from the moment he woke up until the moment his mind succumbed to exhaustion — he was angry. He fought with his wife, who complained that his aloofness had created emotional distance that was too vast to bridge. She told him he had returned from the war a stranger, and most certainly, he was not the same man she had once loved. On one occasion, in the midst of a heated argument, she told him the military had shipped his body home, but they had forgotten to send his heart because it was still dying a slow death somewhere in the jungles of Cambodia.
When his twelve-year-old daughter experienced the first angst of puberty, he flew into a rage, ranting like a madman because he couldn’t understand her moodiness. After the argument ended, she locked the door to her bedroom and practiced guitar. It was an act of rebellion that he soon learned to hate.
A year later, no longer able to tolerate his abuse, his wife and daughter left him and moved away.
I became involved in this tragedy when James and his wife -- separately -- shared the details of his story. I was teaching their daughter at the time. I am only sharing it now because it is relevant (in a round about way) to what is happening in our nation's capitol. I believe it helps to expose the fallacy of the Republican meme that all government is evil, and that we are better off when it is kept out of our daily lives.
To put it in a proper context, consider this: the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 -- more popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights -- was one of the most successful government programs enacted in our nation’s history:
The gold standard of commitment to veterans was established in 1944 when Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights. The measure was an attempt to do right by the 16 million Americans under arms during the greatest war in history; it also was a key part of Roosevelt's plan to keep the economy from slipping back into depression once the stimulus of wartime spending ceased. The G.I. Bill put mustering-out money in the hands of soldiers and supplemented that with compensation until vets found jobs. The government also underwrote the biggest purchase most vets would ever make—a house. Three-and-a-half million vets benefited from mortgage assistance. In the late 1940s, the G.I. Bill financed nearly half the new houses built in the United States.Unfortunately, veterans of the Vietnam War did not enjoy the same quality of benefits as their predecessors, and because our nation’s leaders were so incredibly myopic, the cost of treating their problems -- mental illness, homelessness, and poverty -- is still ongoing.
The bill's provisions for education payments meant that soldiers wouldn't flood the labor market. The government offered to pay tuition and fees and a monthly living stipend. Nearly 8 million G.I.s took advantage of the program. A few years after the war, G.I. Bill students occupied more than 40 percent of the seats in colleges, which welcomed the mature, motivated learners.
Many historians and economists consider the G.I. Bill the best investment the country ever made. The original bill and subsequent updates cost taxpayers $70 billion, but studies show that several times that amount was returned to the government in the form of higher taxes paid by G.I.s who would never have gone to college without government help. The economy surged, the middle class grew and millions of lives were enriched. (emphasis mine)
And herein lies the real fallacy of the Republican’s argument that big government is an obstacle to prosperity: FDR clearly demonstrated that expensive government programs implemented during hard times can stimulate the economy in a big way. (emphasis mine)
The real problem with government isn't the institution itself, nor is it the cost of some of its most expensive programs: it is the corruption and shortsightedness of its leaders.
The success of the G.I. Bill exonerated FDR. Many of his fiercest Republican critics accused him of driving the American economy over the cliff. They believed his decision to invest in building a strong American middle class would bankrupt our nation. Fortunately, FDR's vision paid off, and because he had the courage and determination to see the program enacted, our nation's citizens enjoyed a tremendous period of prosperity.
But that prosperity began to disappear when Ronald Reagan became president.
Because his policies favored only the wealthy. In an effort to please wealthy benefactors, he began dismantling programs that had been designed to guarantee the poorest people in our nation had access to the American Dream. By limiting opportunities for lower and middle class Americans, he reduced our national tax base, which in turn, contributed to the stagnation of our economy.
Our country desperately needs leaders who have the political vision and determination of FDR. The plan he created for recovery was successful because it treated every American with dignity and respect -- and that is the strength of the Democratic message. Unlike the Republicans, we value all human life.