Saturday, August 30, 2008

DNC Day 5 - The War We Fight

Guestblogged by Victoria Leon Guerrero

My first cousin and pare’ recently left his wife and three boys for boot camp. His wife stares at the doorway every night hoping that he will walk through it. But he is gone. Gone to the idea that now their lives will be made easier, now that he is in the Army. He will make enough money for them to finally have their own home after raising their family in a small bedroom at his in-law’s house for almost a decade.

I want to be hopeful, to believe that this is a good thing for him, but I know better. I know my cousin and how much he loves our island and our family. Now he will be farther away from Guam than he’s ever been, and for a very long time. And in that time the chances are great that he may fight in a war – another country’s war.

There is no hope in fighting another country’s war.

There are some, who believe that Guam is a part of the United States, and that fighting a war in Iraq gives us freedom on our island, but that is simply not true. U.S. law states that Guam is a possession of, but not a part of, the United States. Our political status does not enable our island to seek the compensation we deserve for sacrificing our land and our lives to the United States. What this means for my cousin is that if he survives deployment, but is left with the wounds of war, the country he is about to serve will do little to heal him.

This was made clearer to me during my time as a special guest at this year’s Democratic National Convention. Guam delegates had prime seats on the convention floor and were able to cast votes for the Democratic nominee for president, but otherwise had no real presence – not in the heavily televised speeches of politicians or the daily caucuses discussing issues that were relevant to our island. The reason: as long as Guam cannot vote for president, the needs of our island and people will always remain a distant afterthought in U.S. politics.

On Guam, however, the United States is always on our minds. Our island is home to thousands of veterans who served in every war since World War II, and yet there is not a hospital to serve them. We are finally getting a new VA clinic, but in order to receive care from that clinic or any other benefits for wartime casualties, Guam veterans must be processed in Hawaii – a seven-hour, $1,000 flight away. Guam leaders have been pushing for a VA processing center on the island, but their requests have been ignored.

At the Military and Veterans Affairs Caucus at the DNC I learned that Guam veterans are not alone in their fight for recognition. Congressman Mike Honda from California spoke passionately about the difficulties he faced to include Filipino World War II veterans in the Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act, which finally passed the Senate. He talked about how most Filipino veterans of World War II have either died or are in their 80s and 90s and have yet to receive benefits for their service. I sat wondering about all my relatives who survived World War II on Guam, but died before ever receiving war reparations. Every single one of Guam’s non-voting representatives to Congress has tried to pass legislation for them, but still our people have not been recognized for the sacrifices they made during that war. Again, without real representation, our people remain ignored.

I followed Congressman Honda outside after his speech and asked him very candidly what he thought about Guam’s political status. “I believe in sovereignty,” he said. “People of Guam should have self-determination.” Then I asked him if he supported the current massive military build-up on the island, and he said he thought it would be good for Guam. When I tried to tell him that it would stand in the way of our self-determination, he said that he did not understand how.

I started to wonder about contradictions in his beliefs and in my own. I strongly believe that our political status prevents us from thriving economically and politically because of our imposed dependency on the United States. I would never push for a deeper dependency on Federal funding. But I also believe that our elders who survived World War II, our veterans, and our young men and women fighting in U.S. wars today are entitled to Federal funds and services for their sacrifices.

I returned to the caucus to find that despite all the “support our troops” propaganda spun by the current administration, U.S. troops, regardless of their political status, get very little support for their sacrifices.

The caucus featured a panel of experts that included top military officials, Sen. Barak Obama’s veterans’ affairs advisors, military wives and the daughter of a solider who went MIA in Vietnam. All of them said the same thing: troops, veterans and their families alike have not been a priority in Congress or in the administration. And that John McCain, who does not want anyone to forget that he was a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, has forgotten about his fellow veterans. He has not supported legislation that would increase veterans’ benefits, nor did he support the GI bill.

Obama, on the other hand, is part of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and has laid out a comprehensive plan to improve care for veterans including mental health and drug abuse treatment, improving service members’ transition into civilian life, fully funding and improving VA medical care, and honoring veterans for their service.

While there is hope in Obama’s plan, I remain skeptical about the fate of Guam’s veterans. After the caucus I approached one of Obama’s veterans’ affairs advisors and asked him what the presidential candidate’s policies were for Guam veterans. “I don’t know,” he candidly replied. “We’ve never talked about it.” I was shocked. If there is one thing most politicians know, it’s that Guam produces a lot of soldiers. How could they not know that these soldiers return to our island with all the external and internal injuries common to veterans, including severe cases of depression and drug abuse? He gave me his card, asked me to send him an email about the state of Guam’s veterans’ affairs and promised to speak with Obama about it right away.

Like Obama’s advisor, most political advisors know nothing about Guam. The DNC taught me that we will never have a presence until we make a statement. No one is going to listen until we shout loudly for our rights. There is no hope in fighting another country’s war. It’s time to fight for our own nation and her people.

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