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America Has Been Screwing Over Its Veterans Since the Revolutionary War

A dive into the long history of the US government making promises to soldiers, then breaking them.

Jackie Kilby, an archives technician at the National Archives, was parsing old letters to the US State Department when a name caught her eye: Caleb Brewster, a key member of George Washington's Culper Spy Ring, recently made famous by the AMC show Turn. The Long Island sailor-turned-revolutionary's 1792 letter to President Washington recounted how, on 7 December 1782, five years into his service, he'd led a battle against three British ships near Fairfield, Connecticut. During the encounter, Brewster took a musket ball to the chest, an injury noted in Washington's own journal. Three months later, the partially recovered Brewster led another attack on a British vessel, aggravating his wound. He was incapacitated—"confined two years & a half under distressing [surgical] operations & a most forlorn hope of cure," as he put it in his letter. The injury, sustained in the service of the very foundation of America, had left him with a long-term disability.

The rest of Brewster's story would be frustratingly familiar to veterans born two centuries later.

The Continental Congress had guaranteed disabled soldiers disability benefits in 1776. But when Brewster went to New York (states were supposed to pay claims), it wouldn't pay up. Neither would Connecticut, where he'd also lived and served. In 1789, the newly established US Congress took the responsibility for paying claims, so Brewster petitioned them—and in 1790 they explicitly granted him back pay on his claims and half pay for life. But the Treasury refused to settle his account, so Brewster beseeched President Washington personally to help him receive the benefits promised to him. It took the president's intervention in 1792, nine years after Brewster suffered his injuries, for the US to settle up.

"What he described, it really made me realize that not much has changed," says Kilby, who published her research on Brewster's case on the National Archives' blog last month. Kilby saw resonances between Brewster's case and challenges her father, a Vietnam Army vet exposed to Agent Orange, and brother, a Marine Corps Reserve lifer who did two tours in Iraq, have faced trying to claim benefits America promised them.

America has a long history of publicly venerating its veterans, but an arguably longer history of failing them. As the veterans affairs legal historian James Ridgway tells me, "people are much more familiar with the rhetoric around the way we wish we treated veterans rather than the decisions that we actually make." That's a problem, as failing to recognize historic failures prevents us from fully contextualizing our modern systems and actually realizing our pro-veteran rhetoric.  

If Brewster really did get his payout, he was one of the lucky Revolutionary veterans. There were around 250,000 soldiers who fought in that war by some estimates, but only about 3,000 drew a pension in the early years of the republic. Kilby believes this was because the country was flat broke at the time—by the time it was able to fund disability claims, many in dire need had sold their papers to speculators for pennies. However, studies, including one from Ridgway himself, indicate that many benefits were promised to soldiers mainly to recruit soldiers and keep them from deserting, and were only paid out grudgingly by politicians and a public with no particular allegiance to vets.

In the decades and centuries since, the country's attitudes toward veterans shifted from war to war. According to Ridgway and others, these shifts depended on how politically powerful vets were: After the Civil War, when vets made up 5 percent of the population and were well represented in politics, veterans spending made up about a fifth of the national budget. But after World War I, when vets made up a smaller and less visible slice of America, their benefits took a hit. By 1932, veterans were so unhappy about their service bonuses, issued in 1924 but unredeemable for two decades, that they descended en masse on Washington, which succeeded in scuppering Herbert Hoover's reelection bid but didn't achieve much for the vets. 

Ridgeway argues that most people's conceptions of veterans benefits stem from the comprehensive system developed after World War II, under which vets were given pensions and disability payments, money for education, and other goodies—but historically, these were the exception, not the norm. (Even the most famous post–World War II benefit, the GI Bill, was not an unqualified success, as black veterans were prevented from realizing many of its perks.)

The current scandal over long wait times and failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs, especially in its hospital system, has angered many Americans, and Donald Trump's promises to take care of veterans helped him rise to prominence during the 2016 Republican primary. But from a historical perspective, these problems are unfortunately not unprecedented.

"I hate to say this, but I think the current benefits veterans receive are the best it has ever been," says Kilby. "It is seriously lacking and can be incredibly painful and difficult, but it is easier than it has been in the past [to receive care and benefits]. Can it be and should it be improved? Yes. But was it worse 50, 100, 150 years ago? Definitely."

Trump's aggressive positioning of himself as a savior for ignored vets in light of these scandals was unusual in its shamelessness—one veterans group even publicly said it would refuse money from his campaign. But that sort of grandstanding, which can reduce vets to political props, is a long bipartisan tradition.

"Capitalizing on these scandals for political gain because people may be unfamiliar with the veterans population or what's going on writ large seems really insincere," says Amy Schafer, a vets affairs researcher at the Center for a New American Security, who argues that VA officials mostly do their best with limited resources and have made inroads on scandal issues.

An honest attempt to get the benefits to veterans that they deserve would start with the recognition that the recent scandals are just the latest chapter in a long, tortured history, with failures and shortsightedness often stacking on top of each other. Dan Nagin, an expert in vets' issues at Harvard, points out that one of the VA's current struggles is that it's evaluating benefits claims based on a (legally enshrined) WWI-era conception of disability that has trouble processing modern understandings of mental health issues or other complex medical problems.

The experts I spoke to didn't blame VA bureaucrats for the current crop of problems, but instead pointed to institutional failures, like chronic underfunding and understaffing, that require a major overhaul to address.

"As long as we remain ignorant of the origins of the processes that we have today," says Ridgway, "we will fall into the easy trap of demonizing and blaming people who do their best to make it work… That lazy mental shortcut harms not only public servants who are doing their best, but also veterans who would benefit from a 21st-century system."

Despite Trump's promises, he has done very little for veterans so far in his young administration. While legislators have introduced dozens of veterans-related bills in Congress, they have not prioritized vets' issues thus far either. Some of those bills are well intentioned, says Schafer, but will be ineffectual, and some of them may just be empty shows of support for veterans offering little in the way of substance. And the shrinking proportion of vets within the population means that, while they're still a key voting block that's constantly praised by politicians, if history is any guide they'll have less and less political power in coming years.

Brewster, a Revolutionary War solider dicked out of his promised benefits by a well-intentioned but ill-provisioned system, could probably empathize with all this. Just like Brewster, modern veterans find themselves pushed to fight far harder than they ought to for those things supposedly guaranteed to them. But given what has been reported about Trump's reading habits, they probably shouldn't emulate Brewster and write passionately argued letters. Maybe a tweet with a chart?

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.