“Veterans, you are called to active service once more,” Steve Russell, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, told a crowd of about 60, mostly veterans, that gathered at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Wednesday.
“Every generation of this country has been saved by people like you. I did not think we would have to do that here at home … but we must take a stand and lend our voices to one another so that we can be heard, and make a parade so big that any politician with any sense is going stand at the head of it and imagine it was thrown for him.”
Russell was one of several veterans and family members who spoke during a local stop of the Defend Freedom Tour.
The three-week, cross-country bus tour is sponsored by the nonpartisan Concerned Veterans for America.
The idea behind the tour is to draw attention to issues facing veterans, including reforming the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, defense spending and taking on government spending and debt.
One of the group’s major gripes is a huge backlog of claims that is preventing returning and injured soldiers from getting what they have earned.
“I know that there are a lot of issues going on at the Veterans Administration, and they’re not addressing our needs,” said Horace Washington, who fought in the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1969.
Washington, of Richmond, knows firsthand about the problems. He said he has been fighting for 30 years to get coverage for illnesses he suffered after being exposed to Agent Orange.
“I was a healthy 17-year-old when I went to Vietnam,” he said, adding that the bones in his back are now deteriorating.
“But it’s not just me, it’s veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq. We need more. We need a lot more.”
Washington, who visits injured soldiers at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said many new veterans are frustrated because they cannot get the benefits they need.
“They earned those. We earned those,” Washington said.
Concerned Veterans is following up the tour by holding training sessions for volunteers who want to get involved and to give veterans a platform to speak.
While Wednesday’s event had a decidedly political tone, organizers and attendees agreed that the issues are not right or left, Republican or Democrat.
Everyone is to blame, they insist.
“We’re on a slippery slope right now, and somewhere along the line we need to dig in our heels and stop,” said Tom McElwee of Chesterfield County.
McElwee, a Marine who fought in Vietnam, describes himself as an archconservative whose politics are “just to the right of Attila the Hun.” But he said political beliefs and ideology should not keep lawmakers from being able to come up with solutions to national problems.
“If you go back and read the history, Congress has always fought tooth and nail, but it’s so much worse today,” he said.
“We really need to get consensus,” he said. “Something that they can agree on and we can use to better the country. What we’re seeing today is that they’re bettering themselves, not the country.”
Philip Thomas, who served 30 years in the military, agrees.
He said many of the issues facing veterans and the country could be overcome if a new brand of politician came into office.
He believes that one of the major changes in Washington in the past couple of decades is that fewer and fewer people with military backgrounds are serving.
That means that those running Washington are unwilling to sacrifice to find ways to work together to come up with solutions, he said. He believes when the current batch of soldiers comes back, that could begin to change.
For now, though, Thomas is fed up.
“I’m very interested in getting rid of Washington, D.C., all together,” Thomas said. “I had two tours in D.C. and when I left I said, ‘Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.’ ”
LLLovio@timesdispatch.com / (804) 649-6348