When Johnny came marching home, he got a mustering-out pay of $60 and train fare home.
The doughboys got no consideration for lost income, lost jobs, and the genuine financial sacrifices they had traded for service to their country. While veterans earned $1 a day in France, war department employees got $12 a day to sit at a desk. Assembly line employees saw their wages double. Defense contractors received millions in government bonuses.
In 1924, after three presidential vetoes, Congress voted to give each war veteran a bonus of up to $625. The only catch: the bonuses were government bonds that couldn’t be redeemed for 20 years. At the height of the Great Depression, an organized army of Bonus Marchers descended on Washington, DC, demanding their money sooner rather than later. Instead of getting their bonus, they were driven out of town at the end of bayonets.
For many, the plight of the Bonus Marchers is the only history of the nation and its veterans that they know. That is unfortunate. The tale of how the government treats those that come back from the front is a small part of the story. What really defines us is how we serve those who served.
Soldier for soldier, today’s armed forces may have seen more time in combat than any generation of fighters since the American Revolution. Helping them heal the wounds of war; transition to civilian life; and prepare for a future lifetime of service in their chosen calling will shape what kind of country we become.
One recent survey found listings for more than 400,000 websites of groups wanting to help. There is, as the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “a sea of goodwill.” The challenge is getting it right.
The folks of Bozeman, Mont. get it right. Five years ago, they started Warriors and Quiet Waters, an all-volunteer organization that uses fly-fishing as a therapeutic activity for severely injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. What is remarkable about this group of citizens helping our citizen soldiers is how they have hit on the template for success.
There are three keys to getting it right. The first is “contact,” reaching out to veterans and identifying their needs. To find their wounded warriors volunteers such as Eric “Rico” Jones, a retired Marine, took matters into their own hands. Rico recalled finding himself at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, “in the middle of 500 soldiers and 100 Marines who have devastating wounds and would benefit from our program.” It simply took his “breath away.”
Next, Warriors and Quiet Waters learned the second key, “comradeship” -- that is, how important it is to bring servicemen together in an environment where they can share trust, confidence, and understanding. During fishing season, the Warriors and Quiet Warriors runs seven expeditions each with small groups. “I never thought I would develop such close friendships with people that I had never met before,” reflected Army specialist Chris Larkin.
Perhaps most important, Warriors and Quiet Waters learned the value of the third key “community” -- that successful programs are rooted in places and people that care. With a population of about 40,000, the organization has more than 400 volunteers in its ranks. Even most of its funding is home-grown with small donations from the people of Bozeman and in-kind donations from local businesses.
Not every town in America can be blessed with rivers and scenery like we seen in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” But every town could muster what it does best to serve those who served. All it takes is a commitment of contact, comradeship and community to make a difference. That is the lesson of the river of caring that runs through Bozeman.
James Carafano is the Deputy Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director of The Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
First appeared in The Washington Examiner