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It’s 11 o’clock, Do You Know Where Your Veteran’s Organization Is?

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Photo by the author.

Veterans are a deserving group. Perhaps I have a bias, as you cannot swing a stick in my family without hitting a veteran (and I am a veteran myself), but I doubt even in the depths of the Liberal Arts department at Brown or Berkeley will you find an American who would disagree that veterans are worthy of our respect. There exist elements in our society who would use veterans, or the respect they’ve earned, as a vehicle for their own purposes. I believe this is despicable, and I hope you will, too.

What is this guy on about, you’re wondering? I, gentle reader, am on about groups or people who mislead the public using veterans as their medium, or groups who are less than transparent about their motives or goals. Less diabolically, some groups have noble motives, but those motives simply don’t align with yours. As veterans and supporters of veterans, it is incumbent upon us to be wary of the cachet we’ve earned. It isn’t always easy.

Consider the case of the “Veteran’s Rights Coalition” (VRC).  You’re on board with that one, aren’t you? The name speaks to you, doesn’t it? Who could possibly oppose veteran’s rights? Not so fast! Type “Veteran’s Rights Coalition” into your favorite search engine and look at the first eight entries. Why does “tobacco” occur in every entry? What does tobacco have to do with veteran’s rights?

A perusal of the Legacy collection at the University of California, San Francisco turns up some interesting reading.  The collection contains over 20 million pages of documents from tobacco companies, turned over as part of a massive settlement some years ago. According to a document found there, The U.S. Veterans Rights Coalition: An Overview of An Effective Grassroots Lobbying Organization,

“The Veterans Rights Coalition was founded in 1989 by three West Virginia veterans leaders in response to then-U.S. Veterans Secretary Edward Derwinski’s decision to ban indoor smoking at all 172 VA hospitals nationwide . The veterans leaders, led by former West Virginia Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander John Payne, were outraged that elderly and frail veterans were being forced outdoors into often unpleasant conditions in order to exercise their right to smoke.”

Whether or not actually smoking is an unpleasant condition I leave to your own judgment, but here you have an organization with a benign name created as an extension of the tobacco companies’ efforts to resist smoking bans. The good name earned by veterans was being used by a former commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in a thinly veiled service to the tobacco industry. It is worth noting the ban in question had been in place at non-government hospitals since the early 1970s, both as a health protection measure and to cut down on the massive fire risk.

The Veterans Rights Coalition branched out, as further searches will tell you. In 2000, the VRC filed a memo with the Federal Communications Commission in support of the digital TV standards debate then going on. Whether veteran’s rights were in any way connected to digital television I leave to you to decide.

The VRC also, according to a letter from Bob Jones, a former Executive Director of AMVETS (American Veterans), former Deputy Assistant Secretary of

Tobacco companies have used military imagery to sell their product for decades.

Defense for POW/MIA, and former Special Assistant to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, was interested in Asbestos legislation. This would on its face seem to be benign, and veterans were certainly exposed to asbestos, but as far back as 1983, can you guess who also had a hand in helping to draft Asbestos legislation? Top marks if you said “the tobacco industry.” A letter to the Tobacco Institute from a lobbying firm in Washington, DC requests “comments and suggested refinements” on pending Asbestos legislation. (NB – it bears explaining that the tobacco industry has long supported tangential causes, such as asbestos, “sick house syndrome”, flammability of pajamas and mattresses, and others as a “smoke screen”, pun intended, for the adverse effects of smoking)

Please do not dismiss this as an anti-smoking rant. It isn’t. The Veterans Rights Coalition is simply an easy example based on research I conducted under Dr. Ruth Malone of UCSF, studying links between tobacco companies and the military. There are other examples of groups misusing (in my estimation) their links to veterans. This is simply one with which I am very familiar.

What about veteran’s groups whose aims and policies aren’t necessarily nefarious, but also aren’t very clear? An advertisement for a state senate candidate in West Virginia appeared in the Hinton (WV) News on October 29, 2002.  Alongside the “Veterans United for a Better Government” and “West Virginia Veterans Association” in endorsing the candidate were the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Mine Workers, and something called the “Chiropractors Independent Political Committee.”  I have heard of inclusive politics, but considering that a 2009 Gallup poll showed that 67% of veterans reported being either “Republican” or “independent”, this particular coalition is a “tent” the size of South Dakota. Did the veterans in those organizations realize they were supporting a candidate that was endorsed by such traditional liberal/Democratic groups? There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it seems incongruous to say the very least.

Consider, too, the Military Officer’s Association of America (MOAA). Until 2003, MOAA was “The Retired Officer’s Association” (TROA). The change came about, according to MOAA’s website, to more accurately reflect the makeup of the membership of the organization. As of 2002, 30,000 of 386,000 members were active duty (just under 8%). According to a press release by MOAA, “TROA officials say that the new name better reflects the total membership composition and what the association does for all of them.”

While that may be true, it bears considering that there are many issues where the best interests of veterans and the best interests of active duty members do not always coincide. Access to health benefits, access to facilities, retirement monies – in each of these areas what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily what’s good for the gander. How does MOAA approach these issues, and how does that approach accurately reflect the desires and interests of their diverse membership?

This is not in any way to malign the Military Officer’s Association of America. I know several people who belong, and they have been both happy with and proud of their membership. Rather, it is to make you consider the goals of not only MOAA, but also any group to which you belong. What do you stand for? What do they stand for? Is your only commonality the word “veteran”? If so, is it a group with which you want to be aligned? Only you can answer that question and it’s really none of my business, but information is power. Empower yourself.

How? Do research. Ask questions. Read the fine print. For example, a quick search of the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) website (I used the Northern California chapter) can help you look up organizations and find out more information. Ask the organization themselves questions. If organizations are reticent to answer your questions or evasive in their answers, that is a red flag. Do an internet search of your organization. Read not only their website, but also correspondence between them and groups like the Congress or Executive-branch agencies. Find out where their money comes from. Find out where it goes. As I’ve said, information is power. Empower yourself.

I fear I may have turned some of you off by this point, which is par for the course, I suppose. My goal has not been to malign any one or any particular thing (although you may have guessed I have no fondness for “big tobacco”). My goal has been to help you protect the cachet I mentioned.

If you take nothing else away from this article, please take away a sense that your membership and support of organizations and causes is the source of those organization’s power. The old saying “we must hang together or we will all hang separately” is the foundation of such groups and associations.  You have earned respect through your service to our country. Make sure the organizations with which you “hang together” are worthy of the power you give them.