Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Thinning of Veterans’ Ranks Leaves Breach in Collective Memory

The New York Times
May 29, 2007

On yet another Memorial Day in New York, more old soldiers faded away.

How many is hard to say, but 110 would be a fair guess. That, on average, is the number of veterans who die each day in this state. It comes to just about five deaths every hour, one every 12 or 13 minutes. The losses are as relentless as time itself.

As a result, the veterans' population in New York State is at its lowest point since before World War II, which (for the benefit of the history impaired) began in 1941 as far as America's participation goes. Naturally, the shrinking numbers have human consequences.

For one thing, "you got a reduced legislative influence," says George P. Basher, the director of the state Division of Veterans' Affairs, who was an ordnance officer in Vietnam during that increasingly distant war.

"After World War II every congressman was a vet, or most of them were," Mr. Basher said. "Now, you can look at Congress and less than 15 percent of them are veterans. Your State Legislature is exactly the same. I can probably name them all."

Numbers never tell a full story, but they are compelling.

Each year, Mr. Basher said, about 40,000 former military men and women die in New York State. Another 10,000 a year leave the state, most of them heading south and west; they are offset by roughly 10,000 who are fresh from military service.

That leaves New York with about 1,050,000 veterans, compared with 1.4 million eight years ago. Actuarial projections by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs say the number will shrink to 878,000 in five years.

There is no great mystery at work here. Plain and simple, no one gets out of life alive.

Sure, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing new veterans — about 48,000 in the state since 9/11, half of them from National Guard or Reserve units. But their numbers hardly keep pace with the rapid disappearance of fighters from World War II and the Korean War (which, again for the history impaired, lasted from 1950 to 1953).

In 2000, New York State had 343,600 veterans of World War II vintage. By the fall of 2005, the last year with precise figures, the total had dwindled to 200,400. By 2015, it is expected to be barely 45,000. The trend is the same for Korean War veterans. Those of the Vietnam era are starting to feel their mortality as well.

Looked at another way — and we'll spare you any more numbers after this — only 7 percent of New York's adult population have military experience, a figure likely to dip below 5 percent within five years.

What it means is that the military is increasingly a class distinct from the rest of society. Mr. Basher is convinced this is not healthy.

"It drives me crazy," he said. In his Vietnam days, from 1969 to 1971, his mates came from "a whole range of economic and social circumstances that you don't get in the military now."

"Today's military is a monolith, and the diversity is not so much close to what it should be," he said. "The more diverse, the more people understand the military, the less likely you are to use them as a group of mercenaries, which is sort of how you're using them now."

LEADING politicians are more unfamiliar than ever with the military. In the top tier of New York's elected officials, not one has been in uniform — not the governor, not either senator, not the attorney general, not the mayor, not the tough-talking former mayor who would be president.

Yet, almost paradoxically, "this in a sense is the best possible time to be a veteran," Mr. Basher said. Whatever the long-term societal consequences of having an American military in which relatively few serve, veterans command more respect, he said, than they did when he returned from Vietnam.

No question, there are Veterans Affairs foul-ups and serious shortcomings at places like the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But "nobody wants to not fund the vets," Mr. Basher said. In New York State, he said, Veterans Affairs will spend nearly $4 billion this year, almost double the figure from 10 years ago.

Whenever he wore his uniform after coming home, "people looked at you funny," Mr. Basher said. "Now, those of us that got treated that way are in a sense running the system. We're driven to make sure that doesn't happen to these guys. And it's not going to."

It's fundamental, he said: "You can hate the war, but you've got to love the warrior."


Blogger 1138 said...

In 1989 I (a veteran) left a state that had become actively hostile towards veterans.
My father (also a veteran) remained until his health made the anger the state had to veterans became too much.
This (me) former NY Veteran told NYS to go to hell and hasn't looked back.
It's a land I will always love, but one I will probably never live in again.

9:41 AM  

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