Earlier this month, I was online making arguments about women serving in the U.S. military. I couldn’t believe that, in 2021, I was actually countering arguments that were used back in 1948, when women were first allowed to serve as full members of the U.S. armed forces. Today’s GOP is yesterday’s bigotry. However, women now make up roughly 20% of the U.S. military. During my online battles, I shared plenty of stories of bad-ass military women, and reminded the right-wing trolls that was no group more effective against ISIS than the female Kurdish Peshmerga.
Yet they responded by quoting from a disgusting, misogynistic rant by Fox News’ star host, Tucker Carlson, who literally mocked women service members, saying the U.S. was “feminizing” our military. He based his attack exclusively on a report from our adversaries in China.
Pentagon leadership rallied to correct the extensive misinformation being spread through right-wing media, while military members rallied around their own. Many thought it ironic that Carlson depended on the very women he was mocking to protect him, since he was too cowardly to ever serve himself.
Carlson’s attack on our own service members using enemy propaganda would have, I thought, elicited at least some kind of response from the military-loving Republican Party. Yet only one Republican politician, Sen. Ted Cruz, spoke up—and that was to demand a meeting with the defense secretary to get him to stop “bullying” Tucker Carlson. No surprise Cruz wouldn’t stick up for military women; look how he treats the women and girls in his own family.
I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked. During the past few years, the GOP has engaged in a constant mockery of our military. My own senator, Marco Rubio, doesn’t even recognize America’s military personnel. Yet no one has done more damage than the GOP’s leader, Donald J. Trump. He began in 2016 with fairly high popularity in the service ranks, at least compared to Hillary Clinton, but polls showed a consistent decline that led many to vote for Joe Biden in 2020. Trump likely believed that the military voters were similar to the clueless rubes who attend his rallies and easily accept his many outrageous lies without question. He thought wrong.
The attacks on grieving Gold Star families, war widows, and POWs all occurred even before Trump was elected, but it got much worse once in office. Trump told numerous lies in front of military crowds, from claiming he delivered “historic pay raises,” which were just the standard cost-of-living increases they receive every year, to the incredible claims that he bought new ships, planes, and even “rockets” that he never purchased. Trump also said he was fixing the disasters at Veterans Affairs, but instead infested it with his cronies, and allowed his spoiled son-in-law to run amok. With no success to show with veteran’s issues, Trump instead tried to take credit multiple times for military bills that were passed years before he arrived—written and signed into law by his self-declared nemeses, like Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama.
The lies, however, were nothing compared to his abuse of active duty and reserve troops. He dismantled their financial protections, forced children of fallen heroes to pay a “kiddie tax” on their benefits, raided DoD school construction money for his vanity wall, and pardoned war criminals. He deployed troops to the border over the holidays as a midterm stunt, and again against fellow Americans for a photo op with a Bible.
Yet worst of all was Trump’s submission to Vladimir Putin and our enemies. He ignored reports of Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, continued to fire defense officials at will, and stabbed our Kurdish allies in the back. He praised foreign troops while reportedly calling American veterans who died “suckers and losers.” His own secretary of defense resigned over Trump sucking up to our enemies.
Trump even refused to attend ceremonies honoring the return of the remains of a U.S. service member—known as “dignified transfer” ceremonies—because he didn’t want to be berated by family members who blamed him for their deaths. Trump made it clear that any of their deaths were their fault, not his.
The father of Navy SEAL William Owens, who was killed in Yemen, lashed out at Trump for authorizing the ill-conceived raid. This was Trump’s first military decision, and he made it with no input from the National Security council staff—just Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon—who were able to convince him to do it because they believed it would make Obama look bad.
Biden, on the other hand, respects and praises not just the military, but their families. His own son deployed to Iraq. Biden reached out to military voters and specifically campaigned for their vote. As a result, Biden made significant headway in winning them over. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary by 26 points among military voters. In 2020, exit polls show that Trump still won the military, although by only seven points. Even that number I question, because I justifiably don’t have a lot of faith in exit polling, but the trend away from the GOP is unmistakable.
Although Trump may have left the stage, it has not gone unnoticed that not one Republican legislator stood up for the military while Trump was hurling insults. Even Republicans with military backgrounds, like Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Brian Mast, stood on the sidelines and remained silent while Trump dishonored the troops. Only Democrats stood up for them, and service members noticed. The one thing military voters hate is cowardice.
The disrespect and disregard for those who serve or served continues.
When the Republicans were in power, there was nothing they could point toward that they had done for military members, unless banning transgender soldiers, or firing a popular Navy captain because he dared to speak out about how COVID-19 was killing his sailors count as “accomplishments.” Liberals and progressives have a real opportunity to tackle numerous issues facing those serving in uniform, and perhaps flip this previously reliable Republican constituency.
Democrats are in firm control of the House, and although many of the items below are subject to a Republican filibuster, it would be tremendously difficult for them to justify trying one. If they did, it would only serve to make a military voter’s transition to Team Blue that much easier.
Hunger in Military Families
The only time in my life when I qualified for food stamps was when I was a junior enlisted service member stationed in Texas back in the ‘90s. I was newly married, one child, and I couldn’t work more than one job because of my crazy rotating schedule as a military policeman—plus the mandatory exercises and deployments. I had to get what was called a “Lone Star” card just to make sure we had enough groceries. This required me to be interviewed by the state and watch humiliating videos that presumed I was too lazy to get a job. (I recall one video featuring a woman jogger who said it felt great to run to a job and not leach off of Texans. They ran the same footage in English and Spanish, so I got to watch it twice.)
It was a crime that we made so little money that we couldn’t adequately feed our families, but this issue has been happening for decades. I’m appalled that this is still a top problem in 2021. The Department of Defense has never collected data on how many military personnel are on food stamps, and the only survey I could find was done in 2013, which indicated that one in four military families rely on food pantries.
Yet despite promising to support military families, Republicans repeatedly put forth budget proposals that actively targeted the food benefits veterans depended on to pay for extraordinary tax cuts for the wealthy:
New CAP analysis reveals that in 2015, nearly 1.5 million veterans lived in households that relied on SNAP benefits to keep themselves and their families healthy and fed.
If implemented through a reduction in the number of people participating in the program, the cut of nearly $200 billion that Trump proposed for SNAP over the next decade could snatch critical nutrition assistance away from an average of 400,000 veterans per year—needlessly exposing them to the threats of hunger and malnourishment.
Veteran Tammy Duckworth called military hunger an outrage and is fighting to do something about it:
“We should say if you come to the military, your kids are going to get a good education, you’re going to get good housing, and your kids are going to be fed,” she added.
Duckworth and Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., have been working on a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act that would help raise the income of some service members whose basic pay is close to or below the poverty line.
Their initial provision simply would have added a basic-needs allowance for low-income military families so they can have enough for food. This should have been bipartisan, but unsurprisingly, the Trump administration strongly opposed this:
The administration objects to this provision because it would be an unnecessary entitlement. Military members receive appropriate compensation already.
Naturally, the cowards in the GOP-controlled Senate blocked this provision. However, the dynamic has changed with Democrats in the slim majority. Democrats need to make some noise and ensure the conservatives who oppose this go on record.
Burn Pit Exposure
One important issue right now among veterans is how the VA treats those who make service-connected claims for burn pit exposure. Young veterans in their 20s and 30s are developing health issues and cancers that are not normal for their age group, but can largely be traced to the open-air pits overseas that the military used to burn everything from garbage to jet fuel to medical and human waste. The VA has denied almost 80% of these claims, which means that prior service members are on the hook for handling their own medical expenses and treatment.
This is one of the most important issues for Veteran’s groups. A bill from Democratic California Rep. Raul Ruiz and New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would streamline the process of obtaining VA benefits for burn pit and other toxic exposure.
It allows any veteran who has symptoms of burn pit exposure, and who were deployed in certain areas, to get treatment without requiring a burden of proof linking their symptoms to their stint in the service, which can prove extraordinarily difficult. Such presumptive service is exactly what was done with Vietnam-era veterans, so they could get treatment for Agent Orange exposure.
This would be the year to make this happen.
Military women, in particular, have unique issues that require progressive champions. Due to deployments with possible exposure to chemicals and toxins, military women are three times as likely to suffer from infertility as their civilian counterparts.
Yet Tricare, the healthcare system for the Department of Defense, continues to refuse coverage for in vitro fertilization and related services. This burdens the service member for extraordinary costs.
Unfortunately, federal regulations are not friendly to many fertility techniques since they’re connected to the culture war over abortion. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is not considered “natural,” nor is intrauterine insemination (IUI). Tricare won’t even cover fertility testing services, which is common in most private civilian plans.
Congressional Democrats should embrace changing this. Democrat Patty Murray has championed legislation to do just that, but has run into significant opposition from right-wing religious groups. Again, this is something that can be overcome this year if the Democrats make enough noise.
Sexual Assault Epidemic
Speaking of women in the military, an ongoing issue that still needs to be resolved is the epidemic of sexual assault and sexual harassment. A recent CBS News investigation into military sexual assault revealed more than 20,000 active-duty members said they were assaulted within the past 12 months. Women are more likely to be targeted, but many military men have also been subjected to sexual assault. A study released by the Defense Department shows that the military has been slow to address this issue.
When victims do step forward, they face retaliation or an indifferent command, as one viral TikTok makes clear.
Democrats have promoted the testimonies of brave service members and veterans who came forward in order to push for legislation that would finally take away control of investigations from the male-oriented chain of command. Senior officers should not investigate sexual assault, instead, service members should be allowed to report crimes directly to an independent, specialized prosecutor.
The Pentagon has always resisted this change, but clearly, they have failed at protecting their troops at every level in this regard. Not only would military order not be harmed by allowing this exception to the chain of command, it would likely be restored. This overhaul of the military justice system was not supported by Republicans and and even a few Democrats when Senator Gillibrand proposed this originally back in 2013 to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some stated they wanted to give the DoD a chance to address it. However, after eight years of failure by the Pentagon, the tide has turned. Biden has given it unequivocal support, and congressional Democrats are all on board for protecting military rape victims. Republicans would be foolish to fight it.
Biden did give attention to one problematic aspect of the military already that Trump allowed to fester: the radicalized elements within the ranks. Military members viewed white nationalism as much of a threat as they did ISIS and al-Qaida; this threat greatly overshadowed fears about North Korea, Iraq, or the southern border.
In February, new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin required a mandatory stand-down until every member of the military and DoD civilian ranks received training and facilitated discussions on the threat of extremist ideology within the ranks.
The military’s intolerance of white nationalism is another commonality with progressives, and now they have a commander in chief who is willing to fight against it. This is a refreshing change from the predecessor who embraced it.
There are plenty of other issues that concern military veterans, like job transitioning, spousal employment, and child care issues—which can be exacerbated with extensive deployments. Meanwhile, veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population and in number of suicide attempts.
Democrats should be at the forefront for all these issues, not just because of the votes, but because it is the right thing to do. For years, the Republican Party has pandered to the military by paying lip service and using them as props in commercials, only to then ignore the vast systematic issues they face. Service members and veterans deserve better, and Democrats are in a great position to deliver. The only question is if Democrats will take this opportunity to be the alternative that the men and women of the U.S. military are desperately looking for.