Soldiers are Uncle Sam’s most disposable workers

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Clearly war is still hell, since every day 22 U.S. veterans take their lives, and the suicide rate for active duty soldiers is more than 50 percent higher than for civilians. But politicians and military commanders just slap a “hero” label on those returning from battle or leaving the service. Then these same soldiers are denied decent pay, housing fit to live in, and adequate care to deal with the devastating physical and mental damage inflicted by war.

Military Sexual Trauma. Or MST, is another form of hell caused by persistent sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, assault and rape. It often leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One in four women — and 1 in 100 men — tell health screeners at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) that they have suffered from MST. The stigma attached to being abused, plus widespread retaliation for reporting it, mean that most of the trauma goes unreported.

The military command has stern disciplinary measures it could use to rein in this scourge. Their refusal to deal with MST is a reflection and consequence of the dehumanization process that is employed to convince working class soldiers that they must kill other workers. During the Vietnam War ugly epithets were routinely used to demonize the enemy, as is being done against Arab peoples today. In a racist and macho culture, rape and assault are also tolerated.

Meanwhile, the war makers care little about the humanity of GIs who suffer from PTSD. Twenty percent of Iraq vets suffer from it. Nightmares, flashbacks, outbursts of anger, alcohol abuse, and fear of crowded elevators can be what their typical day looks like.

But an overwhelmed VA leaves patients languishing on waiting lists. Retired VA employee Gil Veyna describes his experience, saying, “In general vets relate to VA staff, because many of them are also veterans. They have an understanding of what their fellow vets have gone through, both the physical and mental. The VA would work well if it were staffed like it should be and there was more emphasis on care and less on bureaucratic paperwork.”

Many wounded vets are ineligible for healthcare benefits because they have “bad paper,” meaning a less than Honorable Discharge. Often these veterans had undiagnosed PTSD while serving that caused them to be aggressive. So they were discharged for bad conduct, leaving them caught in a no-benefit Catch 22 when they seek treatment for mental illness resulting from their time in the armed forces.

Poverty in the ranks. While active duty soldiers get plenty of praise on Memorial Day, they don’t do as well on pay day. Enlisted pay starts around $15,000 a year. It goes up with time served and with subsidies for housing and families with children. But the subsidies fall short, as seen by the huge rise in demand reported by food banks near bases since the start of the Great Recession.

One reason for the high need is that military spouses between the age of 18 and 24 have a 30 percent unemployment rate. Not surprising, since they move frequently and lack a stable support network. And military housing allowances — unlike Section 8 housing for civilians — are counted as income when applying for food stamps. This pushes many families above the income threshold for receiving help.

Beryl Durazo, who is married to a Marine, recalls how Ramen noodles was one of their basic meals for months. “That’s not healthy at all, but, unfortunately, if that’s what you can afford that’s what it comes down to.”

Living in military housing often becomes a stint in purgatory. For decades the armed forces has been moving toward privatized housing. This may save money, but accountability goes out the leaky window. For example, a pervasive problem has been toxic mold in housing complexes operated by companies like Lincoln Military Housing. When residents sued the corporation to resolve the problem, company lawyers claimed immunity because they are carrying out what used to be a government function.

President Obama is not about to help. He used his powers to cut the projected military pay raise for 2014 nearly in half, making it a stingy one percent. This is the smallest raise in half a century.

Time for a union? Less than livable wages, extremely dangerous working conditions, severe restrictions on free-speech rights, a special justice system that gives local commanders power to mete out harsh discipline (including imprisonment) … could there be a set of workers more in need of a union?

This is not a far out idea. European countries like Germany and the Netherlands have unionized militaries. During the Vietnam War GIs questioned the war and were fed up with racial discrimination and other forms of repression. Many united to form the American Serviceman’s Union, which had 15,000 members at its peak in 1970. In 1976 the American Federation of Government Employees was considering a union drive.

Top brass were not about to cede any of their control over an armed force whose job it was to enforce imperialist aims and keep workers in line all over the globe. In 1977 they issued a Defense Department directive that bans soldiers from joining or organizing a military labor organization.

The GI movement did gain some free speech rights for service members, such as attending antiwar protests off base. But one needs a union to exercise rights in a workplace where troublemakers are often tossed in jail.

Only an organization that unites the military’s ranks can raise their standard of living and secure decent healthcare for veterans. And if such a union could eventually win the right to strike? Now there’s a potential peace movement that all antiwar activists should support.

Published originally in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.