LONDON -- A disturbing debate has erupted here in Britain over the appalling manner in which British servicemen and women are treated upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
A recent news story reported that Lord Bramall, a former Chief of Staff, is dismayed by the news of a British paratrooper being verbally threatened by a Muslim visitor to a public ward in a Birmingham hospital. Many of these men fear for their lives as they lie helpless in their beds with serious wounds and illnesses.
The intruder at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham had more than once been seen harassing civilian and military personnel at the hospital. Various reports indicate that the problem arises from the lack of facilities in Britain for returning and long-term injured veterans. One soldier is quoted as saying that British troops pray that they are sent to Ramstein, which they describe as the “outstanding American facility” in Germany. In Britain, they complain, they are forced to endure a “a mental health patient on one side and an incontinent geriatric on the other.”
But instead of prompting a debate on the failures of British veterans’ services, this has triggered one of the British media world’s predicable bouts of anti-Americanism. Writing on October 4 in London’s Evening Standard, for example, commentator Nick Cohen made the bizarre observation that American troops also have a miserable time when they return home because George W. Bush provides tax cuts to the wealthy.
What this has to do with the welfare of wounded soldiers in Britain is beyond me, though such claims reinforce my view that, where the processing of information is concerned, Americans and Brits have more than an ocean between them. For, notwithstanding the daily drubbing America gets here, one of the many areas in which the United States stands head and shoulders above any other nation in the world is its care for veterans.
Consider the history. As far back as 1636, the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony passed a law providing assistance for soldiers from the colony’s resources. Since that time, the U.S. Congress has passed many laws establishing special care for veterans. When the United States entered World War I, for instance, programs were put into place to provide disability compensation, insurance and vocational rehabilitation. Congress created the Veterans’ Administration in 1930 and of course in 1944 the GI Bill of 1944 was enacted to provide funding for returning veterans seeking to enroll in educational and vocational training programs. Today, there are literally hundreds of veterans’ homes, rehabilitation centers and educational programs available to service personnel and their families. No equivalent of the GI Bill was ever passed in Britain.
Of course, it is not just America’s concern for its armed services that Britons judge deficient. For instance, Britons have constantly berated me about the supposedly lousy education I received in the United States, and the notion that American students are always a year behind their British counterparts enjoys popular currency here. But the indisputable fact is that some of the world’s top universities are located in the United States. As well, thanks to farsighted legislation like the GI Bill -- it has been suggested that the GI Bill had more impact on American life and destiny than any legislation since the Homestead Act of 1844 -- many Americans have reaped the benefits of mass education. The result is that Americans, not least American troops, enjoy historically unprecedented levels of prosperity.
So it should not be surprising that many British troops looks with admiration to the United States. When I was interviewing British war veterans for a documentary, every man said he was envious of the generous schemes available to American servicemen, but which were non-existent in Britain. Indeed, there is no British equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery, nor is there an organization like the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. My late mother used to say that a nation’s humanity could be measured by the way it treated its Jews. One ventures to say that a nation’s greatness may also be measured by the way it treats its veterans in both war and peacetime.
There is a lesson here for writers like Nick Cohen. Instead of repeatedly condemning the United States in the media, the British might consider looking to the United States for new ideas. Perhaps then they can finally treat their struggling veterans with the dignity they deserve.
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