WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It's that time of year again. We're at that occasion on the calendar when we can turn to any political chatter channel and find members of America's elected aristocracy praising our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
It's Veterans Day, a chance for those who make the laws of the land to switch their lapel adornments from AIDS ribbons to Old Glory and wax eloquent about the virtues of patriotic service. As they do every year at this time, the barons of bombast will fire off volleys of hot rhetoric in praise of those who fought our nation's wars. Barrels of ink will be used to print their comments in the Congressional Record. It's enough to warm the heart of an old soldier -- as long as you don't care that so many of these political prima donnas are firing verbal blanks when it comes to really honoring our veterans.
But that may be asking too much of a body that has within it so few who know what it's like to don the uniform of the United States. The 107th Congress has in its ranks only 167 out of 535 members who have ever served in the active, guard or reserve forces. The "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" boasts seven senators who served in our armed forces during World War II: Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.; Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.; and John Warner, R-Va. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz.; Henry Hyde, R-Ill.; John Dingell, D-Mich.; Joe Skeen, R-N.M.; Ben Gilman, R-N.Y.; Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.; Cass Ballenger, R-N.C.; Ralph Regula, R-Ohio; and Ralph Hall, R-Texas are the sole surviving members of the last war America actually declared. Does anyone really expect that these 16 members of the "greatest generation" will be replaced by others who have served in more recent conflicts? Not likely.
There was a time, not very long ago, when nearly all the members of the House and Senate armed forces and veterans committees were individuals who had served in uniform. That's no longer the case. The House Veterans Affairs Committee, for example, has only 13 of 31 members who can claim the title "veteran." Is it any wonder then, that there is so little empathy for vets who cry "foul" at having their disability payments deducted from their retirement pay?
If an injured postal worker, government truck driver, FBI agent or congressional aide, disabled in the line of duty, had to forfeit their retirement to collect disability payments, there would be a government-wide mutiny. Yet that's exactly the insult hundreds of thousands of disabled vets face every month. Congress is thinking about how to "fix" this inequity.
But one does not have to be a disabled vet to be a dishonored vet when it comes to how our government treats those who serve. Consider the case of more than 27,000 U.S soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were captured by the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces during World War II. Most of them, as I learned while making a "War Stories" episode for Fox News Channel, were captured in the Philippines after the battles on Bataan and Corregidor. Many of those prisoners of war, like Richard Gordon, who appears in that broadcast, survived the infamous Bataan Death March only to be shipped to Japan as slave laborers.
Gordon related how he and his fellow POWs were "given" to a private Japanese construction company to build a giant "hydroelectric dam, which is very much in use today." It is, according to this American soldier who was forced to work on it for more than three years -- without pay, in horrible conditions, and deprived of food and medicine -- "the fourth largest hydroelectric dam in Japan."
A gruesome story, I thought. But the part that bothers me most is that the U.S. government has done its level best to keep Richard Gordon and thousands of his fellow POWs from ever collecting a cent from the Japanese government or private companies that profited from their toil and torment. The U.S. State Department has argued in court that Article 14 of the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan waives all claims for reparations by these POWs and that they have no right to compensation.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., says, "That's a crock." He's introduced H.R. 1198, a bill allowing Gordon and his surviving POW colleagues to file a suit against Japanese companies that forced them to perform slave labor. "These POWs who fought for our country are now forced to fight Japanese global business giants like Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Nippon Steel. ... They were used as work animals and treated as animals. The Japanese companies that worked these Americans, often to death, violated the most basic standards of morality, decency and justice," says Rohrabacher, the son of a Marine combat veteran.
For good measure, he's also attached an amendment to the Commerce-State-Justice appropriations bill prohibiting the Justice or State Departments from using federal funds to prevent these POWs from seeking a fair hearing against Japanese companies in civil court.
Perhaps when they return from this Veterans Day, members of the 107th Congress will take up Rohrabacher's measures before they vote in favor of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's favorite piece of legislation. She wants to replace Veterans Day, the one day all year when the country honors its veterans, with an "Election Day Holiday." What would we call it, "Politician's Day"?