The soldiers who fought the Revolutionary War were our first veterans, the only cohort of U.S. warriors who took up arms to create rather than defend a country.
If they lost, it meant treason. Having won, the nation treated them with a special reverence, right? Grateful citizens showered them with adulation — how could it have been otherwise?
This May, we saw the Secretary of Veterans Affairs resign in disgrace over the prolonged waits that veterans had to endure before receiving care in Veterans Administration hospitals, and over ham-handed attempts to cover the up the scandal.
We were immediately reminded of the neglect of veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which went on for years before being exposed by The Washington Post’s investigative reporting in 2007.
But surely the founders, with all their high ideals, got it right. They must have adequately rewarded the soldiers who had struggled through nearly eight years of war to defeat one of the best professional armies in the world.
We know about traumatic brain injury now, about post-traumatic stress disorder. And while we might think of the Revolution as a costume drama, soldiers’ minds were shattered by the horror of combat then, just as they are today. Families were devastated in the 18th century, just as they are in every war.
Traditionally, when neglect is revealed, politicians duly register their outrage. They say they’re sorry. Initiate investigations. Spout promises. Thank veterans for their service. Then, they fail to follow through. Only time will tell whether this year’s change of leadership at the VA and an infusion of $16 billion will be enough to turn things around.
And yes, it was the same back then. The Continental Army soldiers had an almost incomprehensible capacity to persevere. “I endured hardships sufficient to kill half a dozen horses,” wrote Joseph Plumb Martin, who enlisted in the cause at fifteen and served in the patriot ranks until the war’s end.
Yet he and his fellows were poorly paid, if paid at all. And just as poorly supplied. As the fighting wound down, a Virginia official noted that Continental soldiers were looked on with “a general disgust.”
The soldiers began to be seen as “hirelings and mercenaries.” Promises were broken. Back pay was denied. The victory celebration for the Continental Army was cancelled. Some troops, as they made their way home from the war, were forced to beg along the way.
Only in 1818, 35 years after the war ended, did the nation agree to provide a meager pension for the fighters of the Revolution — and then only if they were indigent. Many were. The poverty, unemployment, and homelessness that far too many veterans endure today was the lot of many Revolutionary War soldiers as well.
The screamingly obvious question is: Why?
The answer, then as now, is ignoble and shameful. It simply costs too much. War has always been expensive. And if the expense is to be shared fairly, those who take the risks and endure the trauma and lose the limbs must be compensated. They must receive medical and psychological treatment that’s second to none.
But we don’t want to raise taxes. They didn’t want to raise taxes in revolutionary America, either. Military contractors of that era wanted to keep their profits, just as they do today. When, in 1780, Americans panicked about the war’s outcome, the founders promised soldiers generous pensions. As soon as victory became assured, they reneged.
Today’s neglect of veterans would hardly have surprised Joseph Plumb Martin, who wrote in his memoir: “When the country had drained the last drop of service it could screw out of the poor soldiers, they were turned adrift like old worn-out horses, and nothing said about land to pasture them upon.”
Let’s resolve not to do what the founders would do. The generation of 1776 had qualities and values worth emulating. Their treatment of veterans isn’t one of them.
Jack Kelly is the author of Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence, published by Palgrave Macmillan.