For nearly 20 years, a succession of Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense officials under both Republican and Democratic presidents have denied even the existence of what's come to be called Gulf War syndrome, a complex of neurological afflictions ranging from memory problems and chronic pain to brain cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Veterans who have sought help for their illnesses frequently have been treated as head cases, or worse, malingerers.
That would be a good first step -- but only that.
It would be convenient to regard neglect of the Gulf War vets as an anomaly, but the discomforting fact is that it's all of a piece with this country's historic maltreatment of its returning service men and women. The government, usually extravagant in its rhetorical gratitude for military service, has been miserly when it comes to making "the thanks of a grateful nation" material.
Shays' Rebellion, the new American nation's first exercise in popular unrest, occurred before the U.S. Constitution was written and involved unpaid Revolutionary War conscripts who returned home to find their farms seized for back taxes. Some were thrown into debtors' prisons.
Some 75 years later, a traditional ballad, "Paddy's Lamentation," recounted the sad fate of new Irish immigrants lured into New York's famous "Fighting 69th" during the Civil War, then left disabled and without their promised pensions:
General Meagher to us said, If you get shot and lose your head
Every mother's son of you will get a pension
In the war I lost my leg, all I've now is a wooden peg
By my soul it is the truth to you I mention.
In 1932, the use of federal troops to attack and disperse the so-called Bonus Marchers -- 17,000 World War I veterans and their families who converged on Washington to demand early payment of promised federal benefits -- remains a national disgrace to this day.
The protracted struggle of many Vietnam vets to win decent treatment for both post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange remains a fresh and painful memory.
Paradoxically, the one instance in which the nation opened its heart and wallet to returning service men and women, the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act, or GI Bill of Rights, did as much for the country as it did for the vets.
Often regarded by historians as the New Deal's final piece of legislation, the GI Bill not only helped keep the United States from falling back into depression, but it also dramatically expanded the middle class, increased home ownership exponentially and democratized higher education in ways that benefit us still.
President-elect Barack Obama will have a quick opportunity to demonstrate that, although he opposed the Iraq war, he will not waver in support of the men and women asked to fight it and the campaign in Afghanistan. According to figures provided Tuesday by the Department of Defense, 17,228 Americans have been wounded seriously in Iraq thus far. Another 915 have been wounded in Afghanistan. Many of these men and women have lost limbs, incurred severe brain injuries or suffered other disabling wounds. We need to determine quickly whether these veterans' needs are being met and to appropriate what it takes to make sure that they are. That's at least as important as bailing out incompetent car makers.
The American nation owes a debt of honor to all who serve and have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and, particularly, to those who received disabling wounds. Nearly 200,000 injured veterans of the Persian Gulf War have had to wait almost two decades to have the reality of their mysterious wounds acknowledged. They require help and compensation, as does this new generation of warriors
Even in these troubled economic times, our veterans are entitled to first place in the line of creditors with a claim on our nation's conscience.