Thursday, January 3, 2013


Gulf War parade -

What responsibility do military commanders have to the troops they send into battle after the war is over and everyone goes home? That's been the topic of a very lively discussion with readers of The Reno Dispatch since I ran a story here on Thursday in which retired Army Lt. Col. John Cook had some harsh words for Noman Schwarzkopf for the way in which the late general turned his back on veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness. 

The comments about my story, which have come from all points along the political and social spectrums, have been fascinating and informative. 

Retired Marine Corps Capt. David K. Winnett Jr. said, "The heavy burden of morality that is so crucial to effective leadership has no retirement date, nor does it bear any resemblance whatsoever to a perishable commodity. To relieve yourself of that burden is to abdicate the privilege of calling yourself a leader of men. Semper Fidelis."

Blog reader Bill Brooks contrasted  Schwarzkopf's legacy to that of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, leader of Naval forces during Vietnam. 

"Zumwalt made the decision to escalate the use of the new toxic, Agent Orange, to save the lives of his personnel on the Swift boats and other 'brown seas' forces along Vietnam's waters and coast," said Brooks. "His son was one of these men. This escalation of chemical warfare has had long term and far-reaching consequences, as does the growing use of similar poisons stateside."

Brooks continued, "Zumwalt''s son died of cancer at age 42, and he attributed his son's illness and the birth defects of his grandson to exposure to these chemicals. Their book, My Father, My Son, (1986) details these years and the aftermath of Agent Orange exposure as known at the time. I heard Admiral Zumwalt speak at the Citizens Dioxin Conference in 1992, held at Research Triangle Park, NC. He spoke of the loyalty expected of his troops, and the responsibility that asking them to risk their lives carries."

Brooks added that Zumwalt also said "quite plainly that he has a lifelong obligation to these men and women to fight for them and for their post-war needs. That is why he became a leader in the fight for the rights of Agent Orange Victims, being fought by Dow and Monsanto, and the VA and US government, much as the Gulf War veterans and Iraqis are ignored today."
According to Brooks, Zumwalt also fought racism and sexism in the Navy, going back to his days as Nixon's Chief of Naval Operations, and actively engaged Congress to establish a national registry of bone marrow donors which continues to save the lives of many cancer victims. 

"Loyalty to troops and country should be a lifelong engagement for a true leader," said Brooks. "I was a few years too young to be drafted like the Southern poor I grew up with, but it is some small comfort that at least one of the leaders of the Vietnam conflict had high principles, and his obligations didn't end with his Navy retirement. Do we have leaders, men and women, like Admiral Zumwalt in our services today, or are they all running professional PR programs to define themselves?"

Steve Hunyar, an author, former radio talk show host and moderator of East County Underground, a political discussion site on Facebook, thought I was singling out Schwarzkopf unfairly and said he didn't like to see a war hero torn down after he had died.

"Yes, he (Schwarzkopf) chose not to get involved, as most people choose not to get involved with what is a political issue," said Hunyar. "Would his involvement have helped? Perhaps. But we have so few true heroes in leadership positions anymore. I hate to tear any of them down, based on something he chose not to do, rather than to exemplify him for what he did and leave it at that. Our country worships and glorifies celebs instead of the men and women in uniform and their leaders. Liberal cause celebs are put on pedestals while celebs such as Gary Sinise and the great things he does for the military are mostly ignored."

Hunyar continued, "This is tough one. I understand the desire to bring pressure to bear on our government to help the afflicted in the military. However, tearing down the few real heroes we have these days, especially after they pass, is not my cup of tea."

Hunyar asked me, "Why not target every single officer in the entire military who chose to stay away? Why not call them immoral? Why not go after every single Joint Chief of Staff who served under Bush 41 forward? To singularly target General Schrwarzkopf, after his death - not my thing. I would have preferred the media pressure him while he was alive, instead of tearing him down now. To not call him a hero is also wrong. His battlefield tactics saved tens of thousands of American soldier lives (and for that matter, probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians). I guess I just don't believe in tearing down retired military personnel. And as long as our Government, including this president, chooses to ignore this, it is political, and they should be held accountable because they are the ones who could do something about it today. So blame Obama and his administration as they have refused to deal with it in any meaningful manner. It's as though you want to blame him singularly."

Fair criticisms. But as I suggested to Hunyar in our friendly exchange, the real heroes of this story are the 250,000-plus Gulf War troops that have suffered the last 20 years without the help of our government. Schwarzkopf was an icon, but he was not a hero in my eyes. He would have been if he had done something, anything, for these troops who are still sick and dying from an illness that the general knew was real. 

The chemical exposure logs sat on his very desk, every day, and he not only ignored them, many mysteriously went missing or were destroyed. His involvement in Gulf War Illness would have meant everything, it would have made all the difference. He could have shined a spotlight on the issue. He walked away. The fact that he essentially threw his former troops under the bus is inexcusable.

A hero does not turn his back on his men, even after he retires. I stand by my story. Schwarzkopf was their commander. I have interviewed far too many sick and neglected Gulf War veterans to look at this any other way. But I didn't start targeting the general after his death; I've been writing about this issue for years. 

Yes, there's plenty of blame to go around for the plight of our veterans. But not every officer had a bully pulpit like Schwarzkopf. He was the one who really could have made a difference, and he didn't. 

Can the Obama Administration do more to assist Gulf War veterans and all veterans? Yes. And I have written about this. But the President has vastly improved conditions for veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was in utter disarray during the Bush Administration. In 2007, I initiated the Newsweek cover story, Failing Our Wounded, which showed what veterans faced when they returned from war.

Is there still much work to be done? Of course. The ever-growing veteran disability claims backlog, for example, which according to the law firm of Bergmann & Moore, which represents only veterans, now exceeds 1 million. It must be fixed. But compared with eight years of neglect under George W. Bush, veterans are doing far better now, by any measure. 

But no thanks to Gen. Schwarzkopf, who could have made a real difference, but instead chose after his retirement to ride off into the sunset and leave his troops behind.