Ever since the United States launched its open-ended Middle Eastern wars, testing the limits of an all-volunteer army, military recruiters have had bigger quotas to fill in poor and working-class communities. At times, this has resulted in less than rigorous screening of new recruits for past psychological problems.
Young people with a history of violent and aggressive behavior in their childhood or teenage years — or carrying other emotional baggage from dysfunctional family life — may survive basic training. But their assignment to active duty is often fraught with multiple opportunities for experiencing new forms of trauma, at home and abroad. Perhaps the worst-case scenarios that can result include the four mass shootings in the last year that involved veterans. All had troubled personal histories that should have barred them signing up in the first place.
Recruits in better shape initially can later develop mental or physical problems that adversely affect their job performance and lead to their expulsion from the military. Several hundred thousand of these veterans now have “bad paper” — less-than-honorable-discharges — which makes them ineligible for much needed care from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
About four hundred thousand men and women who managed to complete their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan now qualify for VHA treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than a few were motivated to seek help because substance abuse, depression, or suicidal thoughtswere destroying their family life or making it difficult to hold a civilian job.
Anuradha Bhagwati’s account of her life in the Marines, Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedienceis a case study in how military service can make mental health conditions worse when troubled young people flee civilian life for the adventure, discipline, or employment benefits of active duty. In the author’s case, her prior experience of parental abuse plus sexual harassment as a teenager made her particularly vulnerable to hazing, sexual harassment, and general brutality in the Marine Corps. She was, as she explains in the book, drawn to a self-mortifying “culture in which degradation and humiliation were entwined with belonging.”
Being a clinically depressed, bisexual woman of color raised by two high-powered Ivy League economics professors —who nurtured resentment against every conceivable academic sleight — virtually guaranteed that her military service would be traumatic. Predictably enough, her escape from her overly-controlling parents landed her in an environment even more toxic than a family that fat-shamed her and found fault with her every academic choice or achievement at Yale. Writing about her father, the author notes that “the only thing worse than his cruelty was my self-hatred.”
In her early twenties, after dropping out of graduate school at Columbia, Bhagwati visited a military recruitment center in Manhattan. She tested so well that she was immediately dispatched to officer candidate school.
“What I really wanted,” she recalls, “was some kind of physical and mental reckoning. Taming my body was a form of control I didn’t have in any other part of my life.”
Instead, she became part of a hierarchy (and patriarchy) that included “a small class of folks who issued orders and a large mass of folks who executed them, regardless of their opinions or talents.”
As Bagwhati confesses in her memoir, she developed her own “bloodlust” and “violent edge,” although neither was ever tested in combat. She became part of the Marines’ managerial class, rising to the rank of captain. But amid the fierce misogyny of the Corps, she endured much hostility and inappropriate behavior by fellow officers, her superiors, and subordinates.
Even when a male Marine expressed genuine concern about her “stabbing knee pain” after a training injury, she reacted as if he was an enemy too. “I’m sure the motherfucker wanted me to quit,” she writes. “I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.”
Bhagwati left the military, like thousands of other men and women, with deep psychological scars. After a four-year fight with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), her service-related condition, based on military sexual trauma (MST), was finally recognized; she received a 40 percent disability rating (and later appealed for a higher one). After her discharge, and more floundering in graduate school, she became an advocate for better treatment of women in the military.
The group she co-founded and directed, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) seeks full integration of women into the armed forces and better recognition and treatment of MST, a widespread problem much in the news lately due to Arizona Senator Martha McSally’s disclosure that she was raped by a superior officer in the Air Force. Before and during her lobbying career, the author sought treatment herself at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
The VHA’s national health care system has been flooded with new patients thanks to military occupations and interventions under Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump. Veterans’ hospitals and clinics are caring for nine million people overall. Despite underfunding and understaffing, they deliver higher quality of care than most civilian hospitals —and certainly mental health providers. Their mission includes reducing veterans’ homelessness and suicide rates and helping its patients cope with PTSD, MST, traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs, and other service related problems like burn pit exposure.
In her book, unfortunately, Bhagwati turns her own personal experience as one challenging patient out of millions, into a wholesale indictment of the VHA — as if that federal agency, not the Pentagon, were responsible for disabled veterans’ pain and suffering, including her own considerable mental distress.
Echoing the party line of the Koch Brothers-backed Concerned Veterans of America, she writes that the VA is “just a paper-pushing monstrosity, with poor management and long lines.” She neglects to mention that Congress’s insufficient funding and the eligibility rules it has imposed are responsible for VBA claims processing delays and benefit denials —not the agency’s over-worked clerical staff.
Her fellow veterans comprise about one third of the VHA workforce, some getting jobs through a Compensated Work Therapy program. But in the author’s view, many are “lazy, incompetent, or downright mean.”
Mimicking a parental practice she abhors, she describes one among them as a “chubby fifty-something… mindlessly dishing out a government mandated survey for new veterans” — actually one of several screening tools used to identify depression, suicide risk, MST, and PTSD. She even scoffs at the efforts of her own shrink.
During a patient visit to the VA Medical Center in Manhattan, she noticed “security measures in the lobby” but “nothing suggested safety” to her. After she collapsed, sobbing heavily in a hospital corridor, a staff member approached and asked if she was okay. “I shooed her off, hand waving and muttering something like yes. There was no love here. There was only rats and roaches.”
I read this passage just three months after spending several hours in the same hospital lobby, with no vermin in sight. Instead, New York Veterans for Peace was conducting an impromptu “speak out” by veterans and their family members. It was an open mic event, totally unscripted. Any patient who happened to be passing by was free to raise any criticism or concern.
Instead, one speaker after another offered moving testimonials to the care they received and the dedication of their care-givers. The most common message was, “the VA saved my life.”
In Bhagwati’s universe, there appears to be only one true savior of veterans — herself. She writes thatwhen Bernie Sanders served as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in 2014, he showed “as little interest in service women’s empowerment as Republicans.”
More centrist Democrats who have championed veterans issues get no love, either: California Congresswoman Jackie Speier is credited (in a footnote) with being one of “the first members of Congress to take on military sexual assault comprehensively.” Yet the author faults her for not having “the military background, language and temperament necessary to engage the Pentagon,” plus being a “a mess of histrionics, misplaced blame, and grudge holding.”
Nancy Pelosi, now Speaker of the House, triggered Bhagwati’s own favorite grudge when she mistakenly called her Ann, instead of Anu. This faux pas gets much attention in Unbecoming, a memoir full of personal slights and prickly judgments. The fact that Sanders, Speier, and Pelosi all helped secure billions of dollars in new funding for VA programs, including those favored by Bhagwati, is little noted.
In her book, the author blames her former military comrades — rather than the Electoral College or Republican voters in general — for the disastrous outcome of our 2016 presidential election. “Veterans voted two to one for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton,” she writes. “This betrayal was one too many for me to take.”
Nevertheless, only two years later, the author did Trump a big favor when she penned a New York Times op-ed designed to promote her book, headlined “Donald Trump is Getting It Right on Veterans Care.”
At a moment when all major veterans’ organizations are taking a stand against VA outsourcing, Bhagwati enthusiastically embraced the idea. She accused VA privatization foes of being “out of touch with the needs of a younger and more diverse veterans’ population” and focused instead on the needs of “older men whose cultural norms are becoming increasingly obsolete.”
According to her Times piece, the three hundred thousand VA care-givers — whether male or female, civilian or former military — “largely take their cues from hypermasculine military culture.” Thus, in a VA hospital or clinic, having any contact with them can be as “humiliating” and “traumatizing” as “walking past a framed photo of the president — a self-proclaimed pussy-grabber — on the way to VA appointments.” As the author of a recent veterans’ healthcare study, which references polling data showing broad, cross-generational patient support for the VHA, I can only observe that Bhagwati’s view is highly personalized, badly distorted, and not widely shared.
Ironically, by the end of her memoir, the author has become so burned out by the “abuse, jealousy, and antagonism” of her “female peers” inside the Beltway that she abandons “professional advocacy” for a more balanced life centered on cooking, mindfulness meditation, and yoga. There’s even a hint that relations with her parents, or at least her eighty-six-year old mother, have slightly improved. Most readers of Unbecoming, will, of course, have no idea that the three healing activities — now practiced by the author—are all taught at the mean, incompetent, hyper-masculine, and better-off-privatized VA.