Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dying for an Education

I am currently exploring the relationship between suicide and student loan debt. In addition, I recently worked on a piece about a student loan debtor who is also a soldier. That's when I began to think about soldiers who struggle to return to civilian life, and how many of them are also being taken advantage of by the higher education industry.

Thus, a tale of several themes ensues, and is based upon the devastating interconnection of suicide, war, soldiers, student loan debt, and the indentured educated class.

Earlier this week I had a long conversation with Rick Staggenborg, who ran for U.S. Senate as a Progressive in the last election, about these issues. He graciously agreed to weigh in on all of these themes, and also added insights into the reasons for why corporate personhood must be abolished.

Let's hear what Rick had to say about these matters:

As a former VA psychiatrist, part of my job was to help returning veterans adjust to civilian life despite the effects of the psychological trauma of combat. One of the major issues we worked on was the problem of overwhelming anger at the senseless brutality of war. Many had come to understand how they had been used to serve not the nation but the corporate powers upon which our so-called leaders depend for campaign contributions. These were the veterans who have the most difficulty adjusting to their return to a society that has largely ignored the wars. Their sense of betrayal is compounded when they hear the excuse “Well, they volunteered, didn’t they?” 

Although I became reasonably successful at helping them control their justified anger, when ads come on the radio breezily encouraging kids to “serve your community one weekend a month” in the National Guard, I am too angry to listen. In 2000, none of the men and women in the Guard had any reason to believe that they were going to be sent to a God-forsaken desert to risk their lives and too often to take those of others. The Guard’s stated mission has to serve in event of national disaster or to fight in the event of a foreign invasion.  They have never been forced to serve in time of war except in rare circumstances when there was a universal draft and everyone had to face the prospect of going to war.
Members of the National Guard join for a variety of reasons, but most expect to take advantage of the educational benefits these ads promise. Many join expecting to serve their community. Others are former active duty service members serving to advance their careers while they earn a pension. The majority enlist primarily to get an education. For too many of them, it is simply the only job they can find in our devastated economy. Until 2001, none of them could have imagined that they were going to be used in a cynical “war on terror” whose primary purpose was not to defend America but to protect the profits of multinational oil and other corporations that have a financial interest in war itself. Having been used in a cynical effort by our government to run a war on the cheap, they often return home to devastated lives.

While members of the Guard may be less likely to lose their marriages while serving in war than their regular military counterparts, their marriages often do not survive the stresses placed on the family when the warrior returns to civilian life. Despite rules put into place by the government at the beginning of the wars they come home to lost jobs, foreclosed homes, defaults on student loans and children who do not know them. Often, it seems as if even their spouses do not know them. The habits that kept them alive in battle often serve them poorly in their roles as husbands, fathers and members of their communities.  No one serves in combat without being changed in some way. 

Young people often join the military for reasons of patriotism or a sense of family duty to uphold a military tradition. For increasing numbers of others, the only reason to enlist is that they see no other way to build a future for themselves and their families. In a twist of irony or by design, they are given few choices but to serve the interests of those who destroyed their other opportunities.  The costs of America’s economic and military warfare have included sacrificing investment in education and real economic growth. While all of us feel the pain of an economy that increasingly functions to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of an economic elite, none feel it more acutely than those who have risked their lives to defend “the American way.”

While members of the National Guard have been forced to serve multiple combat tours that compound the harm to their families, regular military service members have often served as many as six tours. Even those who are allowed to leave often stay in because they realize that they cannot function in society as they are, that there are no jobs waiting for them and most of all, their sense that they cannot leave their comrades behind to risk their lives for what increasing numbers see as a pointless cause. With little hope, they simply continue their duty as they see it, trying to keep their buddies alive until our so-called leaders come to their senses.

With this background, it is hardly surprising that suicide and murder rates among young vets are at record highs and rising. Having been trained to kill and to suppress their emotional reaction to this soul-searing act, it is difficult to returning to a civilian life that often seems trivial in comparison to the recent experience of making constant life or death decisions. While much is made of suicides and fratricide in the military, it is dwarfed by the extent of violence directed against self and others upon their return. In the field, the soldier has a sense of purpose, even if it is “only” to keep the buddy next to them alive, not for the defense of the nation. At Fort Bliss, Texas, members of one brigade that suffered a single fatality in Iraq during a 2010 tour committed seven suicides and four murders in the year of their return.  

It is little wonder that our youth have incurred severe psychological damage from having answered our government’s call to fight for corporate Empire under the cynical cover of “protecting our freedom.” The predictable result is a loss of trust in the government that put them at constant risk and whose actions claimed the life of the men and women to whom they were often closer than their own families. It is easy to understand why these men and women can give up on the hope of living in a society that honors their sacrifices on behalf of all Americans. This despair is expressed in the increasing levels of violence against themselves and others, most tragically when the victims are the ones who love them the most.

It is not too late to assure that the sacrifices born by this small proportion of Americans are not in vain. If we care about what happens to the veterans of our latest war for Empire, we will join in an effort to assure justice for them and the next generation. We cannot allow our children to be raised as cannon fodder to feed the insatiable lust for wealth and power of what amount to international corporate terrorists. We can heal the wounds in society that have allowed those with no interest in America or Americans to seize control of our government only by a united and determined effort to end this danger to democracy. To do this, we must take control of our own government and make our Congress and President put our interests over those of their corporate patrons. 

Together, we can reverse the trend toward corporate control of our government by fighting to raise awareness of the issue of corporate personhood, the Supreme Court doctrine that holds that corporations have Constitutional rights. Among these is the “right” to pay for the campaigns of their puppets in the Senate under the guise of “free speech.” This is not just another issue to be faced but the one issue that must be resolved before we can expect our government to work for any serious changes that challenge corporate interests.

We owe it to our children to leave the country and the world a better place than we found it. As Jefferson said, the only way to keep a democracy is to maintain an educated citizenry. Having grown up in a much more compassionate and just society that valued the education of its youth, I am ashamed that I did not see what was happening to it earlier and become involved in political activism then.  We cannot afford to sit idly by and watch a small group of dedicated activists do our fighting for us. They cannot succeed any more than can the men and women who were asked to do the impossible for their nation at such a cost to themselves and to their families. As importantly, we owe it to their comrades and others who have given the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that this nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal, shall not perish from the Earth.

Related Links

 Rick Staggenborg: Oregon Candidate for U.S. Senate

 Soldiers for Peace

 Continued Conversations with Candidates: Rick Staggenborg Discusses Education Reform  

 Conversations with Candidates: Rick Staggenborg 

 For-Profits College Target the Military 

 For-Profit Schools Bank $521 Million Off Veterans' GI Bill Benefits

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