Veteran Privilege

Bob Raphael, USMC 1964-1972

Bob Raphael, USMC 1964-1972

  “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”  Abraham Lincoln

Sometime in early February I first came across the phrase "veteran privilege" in a comment on a Blog Entry -- the location of which now escapes me. I was immediately taken aback because I related it to the current references to the phrase, "white privilege," which apparently means that just being white as opposed to anything else confers, in and of itself, and regardless of any other factors, privilege. I disagree with this but I leave that discussion to others.  This idea of “veteran privilege” often takes the form of: 1. Not every issue “you” have relates to your military service; 2. “you” volunteered for military service and you ought not expect “special treatment”; and 3. “you” are not owed anything.

I engaged in a bit of back and forth with the commentator and it was clear that her use of the term "veteran privilege" had some very specific examples with references to "professional veterans" and to expectations, entitlements, and differences relating to era of service, branch of service, combat or non-combat, gender, race and relationships with non-veterans. It was a short but interesting exchange which left much room for further discussion. My view was that she and I agreed on a few points but were either far apart on others or were not making ourselves clearly understood.

I am a Vietnam Veteran who served with the USMC as an enlistee. I served two tours in Vietnam. There is nothing remotely remarkable about my service. My exposure to Dioxin (Agent Orange) has led to seriously debilitating illnesses and I am monetarily compensated for these through the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

The purpose of this short blog is not to revisit the well documented and well known disgraceful manner in which my generation of warriors were greeted and treated by our government and our fellow citizens upon our return home. We fought in an unpopular and divisive war during a time of great social and political upheaval in our country. We were a pariah -- most hurtfully we were unaccepted by the World War II generation and the organizations they ran. We eventually formed our own organization: Vietnam Veterans of America, with a founding Mission Statement that included these words: " Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another ". That speaks for itself. We have lived this for thirty -five years. I count many young veterans today who acknowledge and appreciate the myth-shattering and groundbreaking work that we did to pave the way. I embrace the current generation of veterans and fully recognize the burdens that many carry from over fifteen years of uninterrupted wars. These are my brothers and sisters and though I am often somewhat jealous of the governmental and private benefits (and I do not care much for the term "benefits") I begrudge them nothing. Ah, how easy it is to digress, but digress I must for another short moment. With the generation that carried us to victory in the second world war, no effort was spared to provide education, housing, and jobs to them. To have anyone bemoan this as a negative with the phrase “veteran privilege” would have been anathema.

Veteran Privilege : What does this mean and is it justified ? Does being a veteran, in and of itself, grant us something that eludes non veterans? If so, what? Is it akin to "white privilege "? Is it personal or institutionalized?  Is it related to ‘’ hero worship “?

I first must note a bit of personal experience. I was, in fact, a recipient of Personal Veteran Privileges -- assistance and support given to me by private persons and institutions simply because I served in Vietnam. These "privileges", though I prefer to call them assistances, were given to me during the earliest years of my separation from the Marine Corps when I was ill prepared for civilian life -- financially, educationally, vocationally and socially. 

This first took shape for me in a series of academic experiences, including: enrolling into Pace University, advancing within the University system (with little background qualifications to do so, other than exceptional aptitude test scores), direct guidance from the University President (the late Dr. Ed Mortola), having my tuition and fees covered through the GI Bill in addition to a “special fund” set up by the Dean of Students, and receiving internal support from the Registrar with regards to getting into the classes I needed. My educational journey began when a series of vocational tests noted that I had good math skills and was good at following directions, and one recommendation was that I should consider becoming an accountant. I applied to the Lubin School of Business at Pace University (before it was the behemoth it is today.) I had been out of High School for nine years and had never taken the SATs. Pace had no “special” programs for veterans and indeed the few veterans it had were older and worked full time and attended night classes. I was asked to take a few tests to ascertain my academic readiness and I was accepted with no reservations. I enrolled as a full time student and started classes and was immediately overwhelmed—academically and financially (I had a family with two young children, and the GI Bill then was not like either the later Montgomery GI Bill or the current Post 9/11 GI Bill.)

I now detail these veteran “privileges” I received as an example to the reader:

              a. The University President (the late Dr. Edward Mortola) took a personal interest in me after we met at a social event. We spoke for quite a while and he made arrangements to have a tutorassigned to me forHistory and English.

               b. The Bursar arranged that my G I Bill Benefits  would be accepted in full payment of all tuition and fees so that I would have no out of pocket expenses. In addition the Dean of Students (the late Dr.Walter Joyce) arranged for my textbooks and supplies at the Pace Bookstore to be billed to a "special fund". The Registrar (the late Phyllis Mount ) made certain that I was never closed out of a class (which was especially important when I switched to the Evening Division).

               c. After the first semester I realized I needed to switch to the Evening Division in order to take a full time job. The Pace Placement Office referred me to the New York Life Insurance Company, which had several openings for Accounting Clerks. I was accepted for a position. It was here, that after a few weeks, I came into contact with the late Edwin R. Morris, Senior Vice President for Accounting and Tax Research. Bud, as he was known, took an interest in me and assigned me to his staff with the title of Research Assistant. He did this solely because I served in Vietnam and he did not "cotton to the idea" of me being a clerk with no career path. He became my mentor and for four years I worked for him under these terms: four hours a day doing work he assigned to me, and three hours a day doing school work which he would review and quiz me on, no matter what the subject. No one questioned the arrangement and I was treated with the utmost courtesy and respect within the financial departments. Any success I have achieved thereafter is traceable to Bud Morris, who was himself a Korean War Veteran. When I finished my undergraduate work, Bud arranged for me to move on to another company, and Dr.Ed Mortola arranged for me to attend Graduate School.

            d. During this period of time, several Mitchell - Lama Housing developments opened their waiting lists to Veterans giving us top of the list preference. This allowed my family to move from a small and crowded one-bedroom apartment to a large rent stabilized two-bedroom apartment with a terrace.

             e. During this time I took a NYC Civil Service exam for an accounting position, and with my Veterans Preference Points, I was number 15 on the list which assured me of a job. I never took it; I chose to remain in the private sector. 

So yes, I was certainly the recipient of privileges and assistance because I was a veteran at a time when I absolutely needed some help. Though in the years to come I would assume leadership roles in planning and operating many programs aimed at veterans, and my being a veteran most certainly played a role in my obtaining these positions. It is easily documented that all of the assistance I received is fully available to the current generation of veterans and that the academic and professional assistance has basically been moved from the personal to the institutional-- and rightly so.

So now back to the overall issue of “Veteran Privilege.”

Let us leave aside benefits or entitlements that accrue solely to veterans based upon duly enacted governmental laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local level. I know that this stipulation limits the discussion. At some point one can review each of these and assign, or not assign, a rationale that would “justify” a military service reason for each. I’ll now go on to list some examples. Healthcare and compensation for injuries and illnesses sustained while in service. Healthcare for all veterans, regardless of service-connected wounds or illnesses. Monetary educational assistance. Additional civil service exam points. Preference in awarding governmental contracts to veteran-owned businesses. Awarding tax breaks to organizations that target and hire veterans. Partial real estate tax exemptions. Subsidized housing for homeless, disabled or low income veterans. Subsidies or preferences for housing for all veterans.

Are these (and others) unfair privileges or are they earned? Are they part of the “deal” that one makes with the government when one chooses to serve in the military, regardless of the reason for his/her choice? In our discussion we can stipulate that some of these “entitlements” are definitely abused and we can move on --  there is not a government administered program of any kind that is not abused. Do these benefits/entitlements have adverse effects on non-veterans? If so, is that justifiable?

And what of initiatives by private individuals and institutions that single out veterans for special treatment? There are many programs available exclusively for veterans.

Is it relevant to the discussion that some veterans “walk around with a sense of entitlement”? I have often heard this and I do not know what it means. Is it relevant to the discussion to distinguish between veterans who served in a war zone and those who did not?

The overarching question: Are Veterans special? Do we, as a nation, accept the challenge of Abraham Lincoln?

I have answered very little but I hope to have laid out a basis for discussion.

For the record: I do not like the term “Veteran Privilege”. I do believe that those who serve on the front lines of freedom, in any capacity, to assure that our way of life is protected, are deserving of special treatment. Less than 2% of our country chooses to do this.

Men and women serve in the military for many reasons but no matter what those reasons might be they represent the collective will of the American people, as this will is reflected in the policies of those they elect. The primary purpose (I would say the only purpose) of the military is to defend the freedoms and values of the American people against all who would destroy it. Military service is, to me, the highest of callings. It does not come without a huge price tag.