Why journalism matters

The military has a reputation for being a bastion of conservatism. The media, it’s safe to say, does not. And yet, the best friends veterans have had in the last year appears to be the media, which have been looking after their welfare, some argue, far more effectively than the people who are paid to.

The latest example is the work of National Public Radio, which uncovered a memo last month from an Army official in upstate New York instructing representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs not to help disabled soldiers at Fort Drum Army base with their military disability paperwork.

“To be tossed aside like a worn-out pair of boots is pretty disheartening,” a soldier who didn’t want to be identified said. “I always believed the Army would take care of me if I did the best I could, and I’ve done that.”

The Army surgeon general denied any such instruction earlier this week, until NPR showed him the memo. On Thursday, a contrite Army Surgeon General Eric Shoomaker said it was all a misunderstanding, and he says the orders are out for the VA to help the soldiers who need it.

Q:What was so surprising was that the people you spoke with gave you an account that not only was different from the account in these documents and [from] others I’ve spoken with, but that almost could not have been more opposite.

A: I know. Isn’t that amazing? It sort of speaks to miscommunication, doesn’t it?

This, of course, is not the first time journalists had to push the military to the point of embarrassment to get it to live up to its promises to the vets.

The Washington Post uncovered the unacceptable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital. And even eight months later, the paper found that some veterans were getting what they deserved, only if they were able to get a story about themselves on the front page of the most influential newspaper in Washington.

Days after The Post’s Anne Hull and Dana Priest detailed the struggles of the former Army scout disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, there were calls and visits from Washington, D.C. Mr. Turner’s disability rating is being upped to 100 percent, care closer to home will be found and help is available to guide them through the labyrinth of regulations. Sadly, the Turners are not unique in the shabby way the country treats its military casualties.

In November, CBS News had to use a Freedom of Information Act request to pry loose from the Defense Department, information that active duty soldiers were killing themselves at a high rate. Then, CBS did what no government agency or state (and that includes you, Minnesota) bothered to do: organize all available data to learn that veterans were twice as likely to kill themselves as non-veterans. The reporting contributed to the development of a comprehensive VA strategy for preventing veteran suicide.

And only yesterday, the Associated Press uncovered a report from last year that showed veterans are having a harder time finding work than those who didn’t go off to war.

The report blamed the poor prospects partly on inadequate job networks and lack of mentors after extended periods in war. The study said employers often had misplaced stereotypes about veterans’ fitness for employment, such as concerns they did not have adequate technological skills, or were too rigid, lacked education or were at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

That story came two days after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Bush administration has defended itself in a lawsuit, claiming that veterans have no legal right to specific types of medical care. The vets accused the government of illegally denying mental health treatment to some troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” old-time journalist Finley Peter Dunne said. Seldom has the American media distinguished itself more than in its dogged pursuit on behalf of the American veteran.

As the U.S. news industry declines, to the glee of its detractors, its oversight role of the government in these cases is a good reminder of why its survival matters.

  • GregS

    NPR has always maintained the loudest voice in the anti-administration choir. Public broadcasting, has in effect, developed its own foreign policy and pursued it relentlessly.

    Fortunetly for veterans, this leftist back-door attack on the pentagon has benefits.

    What are we to conclude from this?

    We just shake our heads and smile. Democracy is a weird messy thing, but it works.

  • Bob Collins

    Greg: Why has the “right” media been silent on the issue? Is there a sense that to be FOR military veterans is to be “anti-administration” and, therefore, “verbotten?”

    It’s funny — in a “isn’t it sad” kind of way — that this issue, too, is always discussed in terms of politics. People are losing the ability to view things without the need to run it through thier political barometer first.

    The situation, to me, is another instance of people having far more allegiance to their political parties than to their country. Unless, of course, there’s a good and moral reason to denying the best possible care to our veterans.

  • Nancy Gertner

    “The military has a reputation for being a bastion of conservatism.”

    I take issue with your opening comment. What’s your basis or source for this? You state it in the present tense.

    Recent polls that I’ve read have shown that the members of the military are about 50 – 50 when they self-identify with a major political party. I think this was from the Times (military) newspapers or McClatchy.

    The (Military) Times reported the Bush Administration favored a 3 percent pay raise but thought 3.5 percent was unnecessary. That may have created a few new Democrats among the ranks of the military.

    I think denying care to veterans might have a ‘fiscal conservatism’ motive. Some people must have their priority of spending federal money in a different place.

    I know the U.S. Senate voted to keep corporate tax loopholes instead of increasing funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care by $1.5 Billion in March 2006.

    The vote was 54-46; totally along party lines, with the lone exception of Senator Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island voting in favor of the veterans with the 44 Democrats and one Independent in the Senate. Senator Chaffee was ‘retired’ from Rhode Island in the election of 2006. A few of those 43 remaining Republican senators are on the ballot in 2008 and subject to retirement.