By John W. Whitehead
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”—John F. Kennedy
Just in time for Memorial Day, we’re once again being treated to a generous serving of praise and grandstanding by politicians and corporations eager to go on record as being supportive of our veterans. Patriotic platitudes aside, however, America has done a deplorable job of caring for her veterans. We erect monuments for those who die while serving in the military, yet for those who return home, there’s little honor to be found.
Despite the fact that the U.S. boasts more than 23 million veterans who have served in World War II through Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, the plight of veterans today is deplorable, with large numbers of them impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, thoughts of suicide, and marital stress, homeless (a third of all homeless Americans are veterans), subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, and left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration (VA) offices.
According to the National Veterans Foundation, the VA has had a backlog of as many as 1.2 million unprocessed claims in recent years, in addition to the fraud and mismanagement within the VA and its network of offices across the country, and secret lists containing thousands of names of veterans who were forced to wait months just to see a doctor.
While President Obama has now declared that he “will not stand” for the mistreatment of veterans under his watch, the time for words is long past. As Slate political correspondent John Dickerson observed, these inexcusable delays represent “a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government.”
Then again, as I detail in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, the government has been breaking its promises to the American people for a long time now, starting with its most sacred covenant to uphold and defend the Constitution. Yet if the government won’t abide by its commitment to respect our constitutional rights to be free from government surveillance and censorship, if it completely tramples on our right to due process and fair hearings, and routinely denies us protection from roadside strip searches and militarized police, why should anyone expect the government to treat our nation’s veterans with respect and dignity?
Indeed, in recent years, military servicemen and women—many of whom are decorated—have found themselves increasingly targeted for surveillance, censorship, threatened with incarceration or involuntary commitment, labeled as extremists and/or mentally ill, and stripped of their Second Amendment rights, all for daring to voice their concerns about the alarming state of our union and the erosion of our freedoms.
For example, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program dubbed Operation Vigilant Eagle tracks military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and characterizes them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.” Since launching Operation Vigilant Eagle, the government has steadily ramped up its campaign to “silence” dissidents, especially those with military backgrounds. Coupled with the DHS’ dual reports on Rightwing and Leftwing “Extremism,” which broadly define extremists as individuals, military veterans and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics have boded ill for anyone seen as opposing the government.
An important point to consider, however, is that the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is locking up individuals trained in military warfare who are voicing feelings of discontent. Under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as ticking time bombs in need of intervention. In 2012, for instance, the Justice Department launched a pilot program aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in recent years, the problem with depicting veterans as potential enemy combatants is that any encounter with a military veteran can escalate very quickly into an explosive and deadly situation—at least, on the part of law enforcement.
For example, Jose Guerena, a Marine who served in two tours in Iraq, was killed in 2011 after an Arizona SWAT team kicked open the door of his home during a mistaken drug raid and opened fire. Thinking his home was being invaded by criminals, Guerena told his wife and child to hide in a closet, grabbed a gun and waited in the hallway to confront the intruders. He never fired his weapon. In fact, the safety was still on his gun when he was killed. The SWAT officers, however, not as restrained, fired 70 rounds of ammunition at Guerena—23 of those bullets made contact. Apart from his military background, Guerena had had no prior criminal record, and the police found nothing illegal in his home.
John Edward Chesney, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran, was killed earlier this year by a SWAT team allegedly responding to a call that the Army veteran was standing in his San Diego apartment window waving what looked like a semi-automatic rifle. SWAT officers locked down Chesney’s street, took up positions around his home, and fired 12 rounds into Chesney’s apartment window. It turned out that the gun Chesney reportedly pointed at police from three stories up was a “realistic-looking mock assault rifle.”
Thankfully, Ramon Hooks’ encounter with a Houston SWAT team did not end as tragically, but it very easily could have. Hooks, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran, was using an air rifle gun for target practice outside when a Homeland Security Agent, allegedly house shopping in the area, reported him as an active shooter. It wasn’t long before the quiet neighborhood was transformed into a war zone, with dozens of cop cars, an armored vehicle and heavily armed police. Hooks was arrested, his air rifle pellets and toy gun confiscated, and charges filed against him for “criminal mischief.”
Although no toy guns were involved in Brandon Raub’s case, his fact scenario is even more chilling, given that he was targeted for exercising his First Amendment rights on Facebook. The 26-year-old decorated Marine actually found himself interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys.
On August 16, 2012, a swarm of local police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s Virginia home, asking to speak with him about posts he had made on his Facebook page made up of song lyrics, political opinions and dialogue used in a political thriller virtual card game. Among the posts cited as troublesome were lyrics to a song by a rap group and Raub’s views, shared increasingly by a number of Americans, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.
After a brief conversation and without providing any explanation, levying any charges against Raub or reading him his rights, Raub was then handcuffed and transported to police headquarters, then to a medical center, where he was held against his will due to alleged concerns that his Facebook posts were “terrorist in nature.” Outraged onlookers filmed the arrest and posted the footage to YouTube, where it quickly went viral. Meanwhile, in a kangaroo court hearing that turned a deaf ear to Raub’s explanations about the fact that his Facebook posts were being read out of context, Raub was sentenced to up to 30 days’ further confinement in a psychiatric ward.
Thankfully, The Rutherford Institute came to Raub’s assistance, which combined with heightened media attention, brought about his release and may have helped prevent Raub from being successfully “disappeared” by the government. Even so, within days of Raub being seized and forcibly held in a VA psych ward, news reports started surfacing of other veterans having similar experiences.
That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) these veterans is diabolically brilliant. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these service men are being declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights. Make no mistake, these returning veterans are being positioned as enemy number one.
Indeed, Raub’s case, a prime example of the government’s war on veterans, exposes the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that is targeting Americans—especially military veterans—for expressing their discontent over America’s rapid transition to a police state.
A federal judge actually dismissed Raub’s lawsuit challenging the government’s “Operation Vigilant Eagle” campaign and its increasing view of veterans as potential domestic terrorists as “far-fetched.” Yet what may sound far-fetched to the courts is a grim reality to Americans who are daily being targeted for daring to exercise their constitutional rights to speak their minds, criticize the government, and defend themselves and their families against over-reaching government surveillance and heavy-handed police tactics.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we raise our young people to believe that it is their patriotic duty to defend freedom abroad by serving in the military, then when they return home, bruised and battle-scarred and suddenly serious about defending their freedoms at home, we treat them like terrorists. Then again, perhaps it’s not so much ironic as it is tragic and pathetic—a sad tribute, indeed, to those willing to put their lives on the line.