A Bronze Star and the Brush-Off

Americans don’t understand this latest failure of government. We have a
hard time with stuff that doesn’t work; organizations that are
constantly ‘surprised’ that dikes can fail and wars can produce
wounded, ‘swamping’ the agencies designed to deal with just exactly

Ian Urbina and Ron Nixon are a couple of NYTimes writers who, like
many, now that the public finally knows how the military is caring for
its vets, are piecing together stories. They are not Walter-Reed
centric, they are flooding in from all over the country. Specialist
James Webb is one of them.

to work because of post-traumatic stress disorder and back injuries
from a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004, Specialist James Webb of the Army
ran out of savings while waiting 11 months for his claim. In the fall
of 2005, Mr. Webb said, he began living on the streets in Decatur, Ga.,
a state that has the 10th-largest backlog of claims in the country.
“I should have just gone home to be with family instead of trying
to do it on my own,” said Mr. Webb, who received a Bronze Star for his
service in Iraq. “But with the post-traumatic stress disorder, I just
didn’t want any relationships.”

After waiting 11 months, he began receiving his $869 monthly
disability check and he moved into a house in Newnan, Ga. About three
weeks ago, Mr. Webb moved back home to live with his parents in
Kingsport, Tenn.

The Bronze Star isn’t a Medal of
Honor, but it’s the 4th highest combat medal the Army awards and it
proves Jim came by his disability both honorably and honestly.
Americans don’t understand this latest failure of government. We have a
hard time with stuff that doesn’t work; organizations that are
constantly ‘surprised’ that dikes can fail and wars can produce
wounded, ‘swamping’ the agencies designed to deal with just exactly
that. We are impatient with pastures full of brand new and rusting
trailers while Katrina victims are still homeless; weaponry in Iraq and
Afghanistan that is still not up to spec after four years of kids
getting blown up; military hospitals that are the best in the world at
trauma treatment and then turn wounded kids loose to fend for
This country used to work. Stuff got done. We bitched and complained
about our government (as is our constitutional right), but for the most
part we took care of our own.
Now we can’t care for anybody. Rich as we are, the wheels have come
entirely off of this administration’s ability to function, even at the
lowest possible levels of competency. It is the spoils system of
government that allows the winning party, either party, particularly if they dominate both houses of congress, to flood the agencies of authority with their own.
And flooded we are—left to wring out the cruddy water of nepotism
and special interest, hopful the sponge that’s left is up to the work
at hand.
“In 2004 (NYT), a system was designed to track soldiers better, prepare
for surges in demand and avoid backlogs. But the system was shelved by
program officials under Secretary Jim Nicholson for financial and logistical reasons, V.A. officials said Thursday at a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.”
Thus far, in stunning failure and shocking incompetence, the
agencies of George Bush’s government and George Bush’s military have
not yet failed to come up short. No one knew the levies would fail, no one prepared for body-armor and vehicle enhancement, no one realized one of the longest wars in our history could not be fought with reservists, no one organized the smooth transition from wounded to longer-term care, no one recognized there would be bills to pay and kids too physically wrecked to pay them, no one stopped the privatization of fighting and feeding and caring for your and my sons and daughters that has cost us so dearly.
Welcome to the government of no one.
James Webb is merely one of thousands, perhaps even tens of
thousands, who are not able to argue philosophically over how we got
into the Middle East and if it was a right or a wrong thing to do. For
them, the argument is made moot by their injury and Scooter Libby’s
outing or not-outing a blonde-chick CIA agent is merely a feeble
distraction. For them, stock prices and that latest little shiver China
sent through Wall Street, are just one more instance of a country busy
For them, the business of today and tomorrow and the day after
tomorrow is another numbingly unchangeable paper-chase, physical
therapy routine or struggle to understand that what happened to their
bodies and minds is not returnable for a full refund.

There is another
James Webb, as fate will have it and this namesake is also a winner of
The Bronze Star. He is the newly-elected United States Senator from
Virginia. He is a member of both the Armed Services Committee and the Veteran Affairs Committee. Like our specialist with the 11 month wait for paperwork, Senator James Webb is a no-bullshit guy.
I expect that the Senator will be outraged—truly so, as only
a decorated combat veteran can be, rather than outraged for the press.
There will be hearings and perhaps he will shove closed the barn door
of an already-empty barn. Fingers will be pointed, jobs lost, toes
stepped upon and new legislation passed.
But what has really passed seems unrecoverable.
The conservative administration we have endured these past six years
has failed to conserve our most valued treasure. Our honor, our
financial security, our care for each other as individuals, our
attraction as a nation of possibility and peace, have all gone begging.
To conserve is an honorable endeavor but we are spent instead, and the
disbursement of a government that once worked, no matter how
imperfectly, has bought us nothing of value.
That’s a hell of a price to pay and James Webb the specialist as
well as James Webb the Senator, along with you and me, our children and
our grandchildren, are going to have to pay it.
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