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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Attorney Discusses Veteran's Administration Scandal

"Or . . . Are You Really Surprised?"

The American cultural zeitgeist has always enjoyed (suffered?) what can only be described as a quixotic relationship with our military. All at once covered in "glory" and at the same time pitied for the poor treatment people who wore the uniform suffer in civilian life, we've never really even been able to establish a clear priority as to how we want to deal with our military, both while they serve and after.

In order to have a plain common sense discussion about the shameful (and lethal, for a number of Veterans) scandal emerging from the Veteran's Administration, we all have to agree on a few fundamental truths.

First of all, despite strides made, America is still divided between the "have's" and the "have not's." I'm certainly not going to argue that every service person comes from no higher than a middle class (or far more commonly, lower than middle class) background, but we all know the truth is that service people tend to come overwhelmingly from the bottom twenty-five percent to thirty-three percent of the American income profile. I have no doubt that there are many families who can be counted among the "have's" (at least economically) for whom military service is a desired and honored family tradition, but that's not the norm; it's the exception. The "norm" is that most young people enter the military because it's their best chance for getting out of whatever poor social or economic situation describes their childhood. Because it's the best chance for training for a job or career. Because it's a way to get college cheaply or for free.

Why is this important to recognize? Because the people that are economically vulnerable when they enter the military stay economically vulnerable when they leave it. They don't leave the service and walk into first class civilian health plans. They need the many benefits that our society purportedly guarantees them, and frankly, we don't guarantee them enough. At least at a minimum, however, good healthcare ought to be a fundamental right and an appropriate "thank you" for having undertaken the tremendous risks that uniformed service requires.

Let's set aside for the moment the shameful tradition our country has of not properly arming our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. We don't give them enough armor on the vehicles when it's technologically feasible to do it. We don't give them enough personal body armor. We don't give them enough numbers and we absolutely don't give them clear missions. It's a fundamental truth that the military is an arm of political policy when there isn't a "survival" war being fought; those political missions aren't always "noble." It's why the men and women in uniform during World War II enjoyed a certain type of reputation and now near mythological standing because they were fighting a war of survival for western democracy.

Since then, it's been a bit murkier, which is why we had the shameful episode during the Vietnam era of soldiers being spat upon in airports, etc. Ever since, the country has tried to heal itself of the divide between seeing the sacrifice service people are willing to make looking through "their eyes" and thanking them for it, on the one hand, and looking at the military as if it is nothing more than a "tool" wielded by a politician with whom one doesn't happen to agree, on the other.

Let's get one thing straight. Service people put on the uniform and then they follow orders. They don't decide which orders to follow, they don't decide what political policy objectives are valid or not valid, and they don't decide on strategic objectives. Those are all jobs for politicians.

So it's not the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen that one "blames" when a policy decision is poorly made or executed. You blame the politician that abused or misappreciated the precious sacrifice that people in uniform represent. You can be an ultra-progressive liberal and still hug a service person and thank them for what they're willing to do, so that you have the right to be an ultra-progressive liberal. You can do that while at the same time absolutely decrying the policy decisions that sent that soldier into harm's way without dishonoring the sacrifice that a soldier in following those orders. As well, by the way, you can be a conservative and still criticize the misuse of our troops.

This is all why the VA scandal is so disgusting. It's a form of discrimination. In New Jersey, the Law Against Discrimination prohibits discrimination based on a number of protected classifications, among them that of military service. We've had, and have, cases where someone is discriminated against by way of workplace harassment or other adverse job actions simply because they serve in the military, either in the reserves or in active duty.

But the Veteran's Administration Scandal is epic in the level of discriminatory abuse. It represents discrimination of an economic sort, since the soldiers that need the VA Administration can't afford immediate access to private healthcare that other Americans can afford, and it represents, of course, race, ethnicity and other types of discrimination, since those disproportionately affected by the scandals are people of color. Finally and most significantly, however, and transcending ethnic and racial lines, is the fact that this is, at its core, discrimination against the disabled, both mentally and physically, who often can't speak for themselves. They have no voice and they have no advocate. They are at the complete and total mercy of an organization which is at best incompetent or at worse corrupt and which considers the health of service-people to be nothing more than a mere annoyance.

People shouldn't be losing their jobs for this, they should be going to prison for this.

This also raises another question about "whistle blowers."

Our law firm protects whistle blowers of exactly the kind that are emerging to spear-head this scandal and blow it open to public scrutiny. Sometimes, reporting internally isn't enough, and it doesn't garner any protection, let alone action. This is why whistle blowers need to be protected by law, this is why state laws that protect them need to be strengthened and not weakened, and this is why whistle blowers will always need the right to go to counsel and to the press when the need is gravest.

Reward and thank whistle blowers, and respect what they are and what they represent. It's why we have more financially responsibility laws after the Tyco and Enron Scandal and it's why this scandal with the VA Administration is going to be fixed.

Whistle blowers are good, and we protect them.

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