Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Each day that passes since the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol reveals more veterans and service members were involved in the violence. Yet those who betrayed their oath or violated the terms of their security clearances and attacked their own government should lose access to the benefits it provides. To understand why it’s important to understand this is not the first time a veteran has betrayed the public trust.
In decades past, veterans had to deal with multiple agencies to access war benefits. Healthcare, disability claims, and vocational rehabilitation were all the purview of separate agencies. The Veterans’ Bureau was created after World War I to consolidate veteran benefits under the same roof and expand resources efficiently. The first administrator was Charles Forbes. As a war veteran and close friend of then-President Warren G. Harding, he seemed the ideal choice to lead the new agency.
Unfortunately, Forbes turned out to be the epitome of a Blue Falcon. After taking the helm of the Veterans’ Bureau, he pushed to build new veteran hospitals and regional offices across the country but used this office to extract kickbacks from firms bidding on construction and supply contracts. He also denied a large swath of disability claims from World War I veterans. If you think the current system and backlog of claims are scandalous, these veterans contributed a portion of their paychecks to cover their own disability insurance.
In the wake of the Teapot Dome Scandal, which exposed corruption in Harding’s administration, and after absconding to Europe to evade charges, Forbes was convicted and spent little more than a year in Leavenworth. The stench of the scandal was so bad that a new agency was created, the Department of Veterans Affairs (then known as the Veterans Administration). You would think that would be the end of his story and he would have been an outcast to languish and disappear from history. Instead, Forbes is currently buried in Arlington National Cemetery; a man who used his position to embezzle government funds instead of helping his fellow war veterans is now buried in a place of honor.
Veterans’ benefits are more robust and inclusive than they have ever been in this country. The VA handles an overwhelming number of programs and benefits. The scope of its mission makes it the second-largest cabinet agency in the nation. The most recent funding bill for the VA was $243.3 billion for 2021, a 500 percent increase from the 2001 budget. For all its flaws the benefits afforded to U.S. veterans are massive. These benefits are rarely challenged and when they are scrutinized, the question is usually, “why not more?” Woe unto anyone who challenges the sanctity of veteran benefits and does not press to give more to veterans.
After the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, we need to consider the implications for any veteran who participated. Those who dared to enter the building by force or threat of violence should have every one of their federal benefits stripped immediately.
This attack has been characterized as a riot, an attempted coup, and a putsch. The Department of Justice said some will be charged with sedition. But whatever it was, it’s not covered under the First Amendment. The law is clear that those who commit acts of treason or subversion will have their federal benefits revoked. We can and should start with Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who was shot and killed trying to breach the Speaker’s Lobby, which would have given her and other rioters’ access to the House chamber. The National Cemetery Administration is particularly clear: “Veterans aren’t eligible if they were convicted of subversive activities after September 1, 1959.”
Unlike Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, Babbitt died dishonoring the oath she swore at each of her enlistments. Officer Sicknick stood his post with honor and commitment though he had left the military years earlier. He deserves every benefit available to servicemembers and then some. Congressmen Ruben Gallego and Jason Crow also demonstrated the values we expect from those that have raised their hands and swore an oath to defend the nation. Though it would seem obvious that Babbitt died attempting to overthrow the federal government, the VA has yet to publicly announce what will happen to her benefits. If the slow and hollow response from the current VA secretary is any indication of his commitment to resolving complex veteran issues, this issue is likely going to be in limbo until a new secretary is approved by the Senate.
In addition to Babbitt, we know there were other veterans at the Capitol who entered the building after traversing obstacles outside and through barricaded doors. One of the insurrectionists was a retired Air Force officer who stood on the Senate floor with flexicuffs in hand. This week an active-duty Army officer from Fort Bragg admitted to organizing a group traveling to Washington D.C. Some, including a retired Navy SEAL, bragged about taking part in the riots online. One judge has even cited the military service records of two veteran insurrectionists, both current police officers, as the reason he denied a prosecutor’s request to order GPS monitoring for the pair.
For those that may argue that Babbitt was a war veteran and she may have had PTSD, as the kids say, you can miss me with all that. I have worked as a licensed clinical social worker at the VA and with various veteran groups long enough to know that PTSD is not an excuse to overthrow the government. My professional experience should be enough to make such a claim. But for those who will decry, “you wouldn’t understand, you’re not a vet!” I also have a veteran credential. The veterans I consort with would not behave in such a manner. If they did, I would have already turned them into the FBI without losing any sleep.
The attack on the Capital disrupted a joint session of Congress that included the next three people in line for the presidency of the United States. A clear message needs to be sent that Babbitt is not a martyr and other veterans involved in the attack should reap the same punishments as traitors regardless of their previous military service.
I was not alive when Charles Forbes was interred at Arlington. Had I been, I would have petitioned to keep him from that honor. That ship has sailed. I can, however, clearly and unequivocally state that Babbitt and her ilk are not deserving of the magnanimity our citizenry affords to veterans. They turned their backs on the nation as it struggles to hold itself together. They are traitors and therefore should be stripped of their benefits without delay.
Steve Wahle is a PhD student at University of South Carolina studying veteran identity. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Marine Corps veteran.