At a staged press event earlier this week in Billings, Congressman Zinke made an astonishing announcement that disabled veterans with PTSD should be required to get a job to keep their benefits. Speaking to a handpicked group of veteran supporters, he argued that disabled veterans need to be careful not to become “dependent” on government services and to be careful not to fall victim to the “economic slavery” of government services:
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke told veterans Tuesday to be wary of becoming overly dependent on government services and to help each other rise up.
Speaking to a small group of veterans in Billings, Zinke said as a veteran he worries about the “economic slavery” of government services and spoke specifically about the Department of Veterans Affairs.
If there was any doubt about Zinke’s meaning, he went on to say that many veterans suffering from PTSD need to be required to get jobs to keep their benefits:
He said veterans who need care for problems like post-traumatic stress disorder need therapy and more. They need to be working toward obtaining jobs, he said, and should be required to accomplish both.
Were I receiving veterans benefits, that kind of talk about critical services, the kind of services that Republicans in Congress have underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars, would make me incredibly nervous. All this Republican thunder about the VA isn’t designed to improve its services; like always, underlying the two-track plan of underfunding government services and denigrating the people who serve on those offices is a plan to privatize the system.
And this isn’t the first time that Mr. Zinke has diminished the significance of PTSD for veterans. In August of 2014, his campaign released a “plan” for mental health for veterans, one that suggested many cases of PTSD and depression among veterans could be solved not with more staffing and funding for their needs, but shuffling veterans with potentially debilitating mental illnesses off to veterans’ support groups. That seems like awfully callow advice, given that the VA has found both that the rate of suicide among veterans is twice the national average and that there is a link between the trauma of combat and suicidal ideation, not to mention the host of other debilitating impacts that can come with PTSD.
And while the handpicked group of Zinke supporters offered laudatory comments at the event, going to so far as to commend the Congressman’s willingness to call out those who “game the system and that give us all a bad name,” not all veterans were thrilled to hear that their Congressman was using 1990s Republican rhetoric about welfare cheats to suggest that veterans were somehow choosing to become “slaves” to the VA system rather than get jobs. I received half a dozen e-mails in the past few days from Montana veterans who were astonished and outraged that Congressman Zinke would even hint that their benefits were undeserved.
And it can’t go without mention that the member of Congress who warned people suffering with PTSD not to become “dependent” on government benefits is himself receiving disability benefits from the US government, receiving an 80% disabled rating for ailments ranging from athlete’s foot to “undiagnosed pain in all of his limbs.” In fact, the Congressman, according to the Los Angeles Times in 2014, receives at least $1,950 a month in disability payments, in addition to his military pension.
Some would argue that a man who runs Spartan Races, who starts his day with at least a five-mile run around Washington D.C., and whose Twitter profile for months featured a photograph of himself doing very impressive pushups at a Grizzly game, is somehow undeserving of disability benefits that are 145% of the average Social Security benefit, but that would be wrong, because I can’t know the extent of Congressman Zinke’s disabilities from his time in the military—and so I don’t question the benefits he receives.
Let me be clear: I am not questioning a single dollar Congressman Zinke has received in disability benefits. That was a decision reached by military doctors who evaluated his health records and needs, as should be done. It’s unfair to make judgments about another person’s mental and physical disabilities, because appearances can be deceiving.
But it’s indefensible for a veteran and member of Congress, one who must know, professionally and personally, the staggering toll of PTSD and other mental illnesses on our men and women who served, from Vietnam to the Afghanistan War, to suggest that there are veterans refusing to engage in the economy. Just as we are finally taking seriously the horrific psychological toll of war, Congressman Zinke should not be spreading the myth that veterans experiencing these disorders are somehow shirking their responsibilities to society and choosing “slavery” over work. It’s indefensible for Congressman Zinke to intimate that the mental health needs of veterans suffering from serious mental illness are any less deserving than he is for the physical injuries he endured.
He owes those veterans an apology and more. He owes them a commitment to fight in Washington, D.C. both for financial resources for mental health in the VA system and to battle the unfair, untrue stigma that the mental wounds of war are any less serious than physical wounds.