|Some veterans navigated the VFW convention on electric scooters; others leaned on canes, and many still stood straight and strong. Photo by Mark Greenberg|
Veterans who returned home from fighting in the Spanish-American War in 1898 were dismayed to find the United States government had no plan to provide medical benefits or even a pension to reward them for their service. They were left to fend for themselves.
But they didn't fade away - they got organized, and founded the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States in 1899.
The VFW was established in local chapters, or posts, and set out on a mission to lobby Washington to do a better job of caring for war veterans. Today, 2.7 million men and women belong to the VFW, and last week about 7,000 VFW members occupied the convention center for the weeklong 104th national convention.
Although most of them navigated under their own power the exhibits of historical military uniforms and vendors hawking $94 barstools, some toddled around with the aid of walkers, and others curled up in blankets and rolled down the hallways in wheelchairs, seeking rays of sunshine to warm their chilled bodies in the frigid convention labyrinth.
But it wasn't just wining, dining, and browsing that occupied the brigade of veterans. Politicians promoting their agendas took advantage of the captive audience: Democratic Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry, plus Bush compadres and comadres Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza "Long-Grain" Rice, and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Despite the fact that the Bush administration has uncovered no weapons of mass destruction and lied about the Iraqi-African uranium deal, Rummy defended U.S. military action in Iraq, and said that troops "have everything they need for the war on terror." Meanwhile, the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq topped 200 - and more of them have died after Bush declared the conflict "over" than when the war was officially being waged.
Rumsfeld also admitted that U.S. troops would be moved out of non-military jobs in Iraq to make room for defense contractors, also known as President George Bush's benefactors.
Although Rumsfeld never served in the military, Kerry volunteered to serve on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. He was awarded three Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered in battle, and is a lifetime member of the VFW. "The VFW will survive as long as freedom does," Kerry said after he acknowledged that the United States is losing up to 1,000 veterans a day to old age and disease. "We are all responsible for each other."
He slammed the Bush administration for allowing politics to interfere with the welfare of U.S. troops who are fighting in 100 countries worldwide: "The interest of grunts on the ground come before all politics." It is easier to be a soldier in harm's way than to be a veteran, Kerry noted, since Bush has slashed veteran health care and cut pay to troops still fighting in various military campaigns.
He earned a standing ovation when he said Middle Easterners should be fighting terrorists and dictators in their own countries. "It would be nice to see some Arabs in uniform sharing the fight for freedom."
Veterans tallied a 100 percent attendance rate for Kerry's speech. One-third of the audience left when Rumsfeld took the podium, and by the time Condie spoke last Monday, the hall was three-quarters empty. Even veterans can't swallow the Bush sycophants' hawkisms all at once, and the Alamo and River Walk beckoned - not to mention cheap beer, bingo, and eight-liners at local VFW Posts, which were well-attended by the visitors.
VFW conventioneers who headed back to their hotel rooms after Monday's session wagged fingers and booed about 25 anti-war protesters who had gathered on the corner of Alamo and Market streets. "We are not protesting the veterans," explained Joleen García, who responded to a flyer that called for the protest of the presence of Rumsfeld and Rice in San Antonio. "We don't think we should send more of our young off to war."
"Dinero para la escuela, no para guerra," García chanted with the group of the protesters. They held up signs that said "Bush lied, people died," and "Condie a disgrace to people of color."
Rodolfo Rosales, professor of political science at UTSA and an avowed socialist, also joined the group of protesters. "I support the progressive student organizations at UTSA and SAC. Where's the rest of the progressive faculty?"
Robert E. Duis, member of the VFW Post 6872 near Fort Worth, approached the protestors as if he were planning to kick some ass. Duis, a Korean War veteran who lost one of his best friends on the infamous Pork Chop Hill, stopped and stared at the crowd of protestors, and uttered a single sentence before making an about-face and walking across the street to the Hilton: "We did what we had to do." •
Michael Cary is a Navy veteran who served in the 1970s.