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Page 8
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Congress Rejects Veterans Omnibus Bill and Military Sexual Assault Legislation

By Robert Clack

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On February 27, in a largely partisan vote, Senate Republicans voted down Senator Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) Veterans Omnibus Bill (S.1950). In the procedural vote the entire Democratic Caucus voted for the bill with only 2 Republican Senators (Heller, NV and Moran, KS) voting for it. The final 56-41 vote was just 4 votes shy of moving the bill through Congress.

The bill proposed expanding health care, education and job training for veterans. This included the opening of 27 VA Medical Centers and clinics, dental coverage, and better access for veterans regardless of disability ratings, among other benefits. The $21 billion cost was to be taken from part of the savings of the "Overseas and Contingency Operations," the funding used for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, that are now winding down.

However, the shenanigans started well before the actual vote, when Senate Republicans attempted to amend the veterans benefits legislation with Iran Sanctions. When this effort failed, Senate Republicans decided to vote down the bill altogether.

Even worse, on March 6 the Senate voted down New York Senator Kristine Gillibrand's (D) Military Justice Improvement Act (S.1752). Another close vote, this bill was bipartisan in the final count, with President Obama also opposing the bill. This bill was designed to take prosecution of military sexual assaults out of the military's chain of command and set up independent military prosecution.

According to the Department of Defense, 1 in 5 women report sexual assault in the military. While this in itself is an astounding number, the epidemic of sexual assaults is likely far greater due to many soldiers not reporting assaults because of retaliation from the chain of command and perpetrators and because of the perceived lack of efficacy in prosecutions. Worse yet, many victims report those in their chain of command are often the perpetrators. Reports of a harassment prevention officer being charged at Fort Hood for rape and setting up a prostitution ring there, along with the high profile trial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, points towards the tip of the iceberg of a serious and endemic problem within the military's ranks.

As the wars wind down and as the military begins to downsize and push GIs out of service, it is unconscionable to not use some of the appropriated money from these wars for the care of those who fought in these conflicts, especially in light of some of the extensively-documented problems among veterans such as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), MST (Military Sexual Trauma), substance abuse, unemployment, suicide, etc. These problems are often caused by disabilities and stress directly related to service.

Several things can be learned from both of these bills' defeats. Many in Washington are content with the status quo in their relationship with veterans and GIs. Our political establishment is content with letting the plague of homelessness, unemployment and suicides that affected Vietnam veterans happen to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Without the investment in resources and attention to reforming endemic problems such as military sexual assault, the struggle of Vietnam veterans may well repeat itself.

For now, much of the political message to veterans from Washington is, "we don't care." Fortunately, veterans are highly regarded in our society, and if veterans are organized and demand justice in a public and vocal way, the political establishment will have to yield. Demanding accountability and using community organizing tactics could prove very effective in shaming those who have turned their backs on veterans and could be key to reversing these defeats.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the defeat of Senator Sanders' Omnibus legislation is that it does not bode well for others. Our country is in the midst of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression and in an age of ever-increasing austerity. If veterans cannot receive help for what the public broadly agrees they should receive and have earned, it begs the question of what will happen to others in our society, like the millions of citizens dependent on social services such as food stamps, public housing, mental health centers, all of which have been massively cut?

Communities should unite with veterans organizations in demanding justice on these issues, but we should not stop there and we should organize for the full restoration of services for all others in need. We must also challenge the utility of a society that funds militarism at the expense of community needs.

Robert Clack is an anti-war activist and community organizer in Chicago, Illinois.

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