Book Review: Soldiers as Workers in a Toxic Workplace
For decades, the armed services and contractors on bases abroad used massive burn pits for waste disposal, rather than safer methods. They burned everything from tires to computer equipment to medical waste and more, often using jet fuel, a known carcinogen, as an accelerant.
These dangerous fumes would probably never have been allowed in stateside civilian workplaces. In the U.S., a company may risk penalties for illegal emissions or dangerous working conditions. If a civilian worker is lucky, their job may even have a union contract and a way to fight an unsafe workplace. Even without a union contract, if a job is lousy or overtly unsafe, a person can often walk away.
That’s not the case for soldiers. Refusing a job assignment near burn pits was impossible, and complaining to the boss was useless.
In their brilliant book Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs, Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early and Jasper Craven uncover the dangers to which service members are exposed during their enlistment, the difficulties veterans experience after discharge, and the corporations which line up to profit.
Taking a strong labor point of view, the authors look at soldiers as workers, and evaluate their working conditions from an astute occupational health and safety lens.
The public often thinks of veterans’ injuries as the unavoidable consequences of combat. Sometimes that’s the case. But the authors of Our Veterans argue that although the military is an inherently dangerous industry, many health problems that follow soldiers home could be prevented or mitigated with reasonable workplace protections.
Burn pit exposures are just the latest in a devastating litany of environmental exposures and other workplace hazards experienced by service members. Lifelong health problems have followed veterans home from Agent Orange, various Gulf War exposures, depleted uranium, radiation and more. Even stateside, longstanding water contamination was problematic at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. In most cases, it has taken advocates years to push Congress to acknowledge and compensate veterans for these serious exposures. Disability compensation for Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange didn’t start until 1985, years after their exposure.
On August 10, 2022, President Biden signed the PACT Act (“Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act”), greatly expanding eligibility for benefits to veterans harmed by burn pit fumes and other toxic exposures abroad. Up to 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed since 1990. Soldiers had complained about the health problems caused by the burn pits for years, but until recently they were largely ignored.
STRESSED AND DEPRESSED
Service members also experience injuries, and the authors detail certain problems exacerbated by inadequate safety equipment. According to VA research, “..hearing problems (hearing loss or tinnitus)…are the most prevalent service-connected disability among veterans,” yet soldiers’ gear is inadequate to protect them from lifelong hearing problems. Similarly, poor quality helmets put soldiers at increased risk of traumatic brain injuries from IED blasts.
Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD are frequent among post-9/11 service members. The book cites a 2021 study that “four times as many men and women who have served in the US military have died by suicide than were killed in post 9/11 wars.”
Stresses specific to military service—frequent deployments, bullying, chronic pain, physical exhaustion, exposure to combat and violence, and high rates of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape—put soldiers at high risk for developing mental health problems. This is compounded by a military job culture in which soldiers are discouraged from asking for help or expressing vulnerability.
Yes, the military is inherently more dangerous than civilian life. But many medical issues could have been prevented if their employer, the Department of Defense (DoD), had prioritized soldiers’ health and safety.
Private corporations profit enormously furnishing supplies and services to the DoD. They also feed at the public trough providing services to veterans.
For example, GI Bill tuition payments have been a cash cow for for-profit schools, an industry rife with “fraud, waste and deception” compared with public and non-profit schools and universities. In recent years, these for-profit schools have received nearly 40 percent of total GI Bill tuition payments, while often providing little of value to veteran students.
Private health care corporations look to profit tremendously from the increasing outsourcing of veterans health care, as our well-regarded, publicly funded VA continues to be under-resourced and understaffed.
Large corporations often profit from veterans in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for working class enlistees to discharge with few transferable work skills, regardless of what recruiters had promised them. Some large corporations, including Amazon and Walmart, like to wrap themselves in the flag, touting their recruitment of veterans, even though the jobs they offer don’t provide a living wage, union protections, or a path to a viable career. Yet these companies can claim a federal tax credit for each veteran they hire, profiting from public funds.
On the other hand, federal employment with the U.S. Postal Service or the VA offers veterans preference in initial hiring, and a career pathway: civil service positions and union membership, with decent wages, benefits, and protections. The US Postal Service even offers credit for military service when veterans are hired.
This is just a sprinkling of the issues addressed in Our Veterans. It’s great to see such a worker-centric analysis of veterans and veterans services.
Betsy Zucker spent 15 years as a nurse practitioner at the VA. She’s a labor and health care activist, and a board member of Portland Jobs with Justice. Her experience serving veterans has made her a big fan of VA health care as a model for the transformation of American health care, and a strong advocate for veterans.