Robert Wilkie has had it with people stereotyping veterans as victims — or at least that's the framing of a recent letter the Veterans Affairs secretary fired off to the American Federation of Government Employees on Monday, the largest union of federal employees in the United States.
After a union representative claimed that the government shutdown would lead to veteran suicide — yes, that's right, someone said that — the head of the VA waded into the fray to chastise the rep, the union, and anyone else that would dare frame veterans as victims for political gain.
"While VA is dedicated to helping all veterans, particularly those who are truly at risk, the notion that most veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why veterans and veteran advocates are continuously fighting this shopworn canard," Wilkie wrote in the letter addressed to David Cox, the president of AFGE.
The letter was in response to statements by AFGE Local President Edward Canales, a veteran himself, who told ABC news last week that "if this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides."
It's a claim Wilkie has demanded AFGE walk back, adding that using "veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful."
In his letter, the VA chief went on to list all the great things veterans contribute to the workforce, from character to civic engagement, which is why employers often look to hire transitioning service members. Employers like the federal government, which has some 250,000 veterans making up a third of the employees who are currently going without pay, ABC News reported. According to Military.com, the federal government is the country's largest single employer of disabled veterans.
Additionally, like the rest of the military, the Coast Guard has continued to work during the shutdown, but unlike the other services which fall under the Department of Defense, Coasties are under the purview of Homeland Security, which means they're doing it without pay.
While Canales' claim did play up the "broken vet" image, the government shutdown is likely to have some impact on a number of military veterans, it doesn't matter how star-spangled awesome the veteran community may be.
You can read the letter from Wilkie below:
Dear President Cox:
One of the most insulting and misleading stereotypes about Veterans today is that of the "Veteran as victim."
While VA is dedicated to helping all Veterans, particularly those who are truly at risk, the notion that most Veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why Veterans and Veteran advocates are continuously fighting1this shopworn canard.
As leader of the largest union representing VA employees, many of whom are Veterans, you should know how harmful this stereotype is to Veterans, especially those attempting to enter the civilian workforce following their service. That is why I was surprised and disappointed to see one of the American Federation of Government Employees' (AFGE) presidents pushing the "Veteran as victim" myth, and going so far as to exploit the real tragedy of Veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial government shutdown.
"If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides," AFGE Local President Edward M. Canales said earlier this week, according to ABC News.
While it is apparent some AFGE leaders consider Veterans as victims, allow me to inform you of the true character traits of those who have worn the uniform:
- Veterans are models of civic engagement, holding stronger ties to their communities and volunteering and voting at higher rates than their non-Veteran counterparts.
- The Veterans' unemployment rate is lower than the national average, in part because companies5 often look to hire Veterans for complex and demanding jobs, citing their leadership and work ethic.
In short, America's Veterans are model citizens and leaders, and almost every American recognizes that. AFGE Local President Canales' attempt to use Veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of Veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful.
I ask you to apologize publicly for your AFGE colleague's reckless comments and to outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our nation's heroes.
I look forward to your response.
Robert L. Wilkie