Plainclothes Veterans

The way that our military operations have changed in the last couple of decades is remarkable. Today’s soldier is not the sad sack GI of my era and before. Called upon to operate sophisticated equipment, they also act in capacities far from the reach of previous military service. We find them acting as teachers, political organizers, police, providers of infrastructure (power, water, sewer, trash, etc) in addition to the more traditional roles we envision. But they’re also the minority of the forces sent by America to prosecute its missions of rescue, regime change, protection and territorial control. The entire military has become what the purveyors of services that, in my time, was reserved to the green beret Special Forces. But the combination of soldier and rifle is still the stereotypical image of our armed forces.

As usually the case, image is different from reality, which in this case, is that our forces are primarily outnumbered three to one by civilian contractor employees, and blue collar military that commute to work while living at home. The technology of military operations has changed the playing field considerably as military operations change to meet the changing threats the nation faces. There is a paradigm shift taking place that puts contractors in the forefront. They can be deployed without the need for congressional approval; they’re simply a line item expense that falls under the national security umbrella.  In spite of their performing that same tasks as soldiers, on discharge they are not veterans in the conventional sense and therefore aren’t the responsibility of the VA. They’re a less expensive alternative to standard military that provides greater latitude of use for an administration than conventional military.

As a nation we were first introduced to these alternative soldiers in Vietnam through the rumors and stories about Air America. They stayed pretty much in the background, not really becoming forefront until the news stories of contractors in Bosnia and later Iraq were carried home by journalists. Now most people are aware of names like Blackwater,  Halliburton and DynCorp. In fact, the greatest number of logistics providers is no longer the Quartermaster Corps, but contractors. Only a fraction of the contractors employed by the US are mercenaries, yet there are still more mercenaries than combat troops. The numbers populating the statistics we see in the news are devoid of the third party providers, and that helps to disguise their cost to the American taxpayer.

These hired hands are not subordinate to the law of the nations they are employed to work in, nor do they fall under the rules of military justice. In theory and practice, they operate mostly without the benefit of close oversight, yet as a nation we are responsible for their actions because they are a part of the American forces, But more to the point of this writing, they return home at the conclusion of their contracts with all of the same physical and emotional issues suffered by uniformed troops, but none of the support. So rather than being treated and supported by the VA, they are summarily dumped onto the existing and already bulging load of private medicine facilities. Some of these people have medical plans and some don’t Even the ones who do have health plans with a time life, and so eventually their weight is added to the cost of general medicine.

That weight is a heavy one. Most people don’t even think about these plainclothes veterans no less the economic burden they place on our society. Keep in mind the huge numbers of these workers we’re talking about. as you try to envision the situation. To get an idea of the load they impart, think only of our small niche of Multiple Myeloma, never mind the laundry list of cancers and physical impairments and illnesses that accompany military operations. We all buckle under the economic stresses of treatment expenses, often laying much of the costs on Medicare. Add this load to the already growing demands of baby boomers reaching to the social security system for medical help and you have a tremendous vying for finite medical resources we have available. This, in a time when government is looking for ways to trim the budgets of government subsidized programs of all stripes. As we move ahead, with plans already being actualized to reduce standing troop strength in favor of even more contractors, we can see the need for post mission medical services rising in proportion to the changes.

This all leads to speculation on what quality of care we should be expecting as a result of the cost saving measures being introduced as our nation adapts its military to the changing theaters of operations. The traditional costs of war have turned out to be vastly more expensive than postulated as our government weighed the costs of campaign. We have found that the real expenses of war hasn’t been the fighting, it has been the collateral damage costs of the physical and emotional tolls post conflict. Perhaps our government’s celebration at the reduction of overall costs of war are premature or even off base. As with most things, time will tell.