Soldiers are duty-bound to protect the people who hate them most.
That’s the reality of life in the U.S. armed forces: facing protest and criticism upon deployment, protest while overseas and protest upon returning home.
But that’s also what makes American military men and women so extraordinary: Faced with such harsh criticism, they still put their lives on the line anyway.
“I myself can’t imagine a more frustrating feeling than trying to preserve and protect someone’s right to criticize you in the process of your service,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), speaking at a forum organized by Concerned Veterans for America. “But to the members of our armed services, I say that’s exactly why your elected officials must strive to be the best stewards of your own rights as Americans.”
For many veterans, though, that freedom has been corroded over the past eight years. Deliberate and calculated attempts by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs under the Obama Administration have silenced veterans — or else punished them severely — all because they were trying to receive fair treatment for themselves and their fellow vets.
It’s a cruel kind of irony: Having put their lives on the line to protect our freedom of speech, these men and women return home only to find inadequate care, a dehumanizing bureaucracy and an institution that punishes those who speak out.
For Brandon Coleman, a veteran of the U.S. Marines and a former care-worker at the Phoenix VA hospital, the moment to speak out came after six veterans under his care committed suicide.
“Each one was a punch in the gut,” Coleman said. “I went to my supervisor about how these veterans had been ignored, and she told me that if I spoke out, that’s how people get fired.”
“I went to my supervisor about how these veterans had been ignored, and she told me that if I spoke out, that’s how people get fired.”
It turns out the damage was already done. Following that meeting, Coleman was instantly blackballed by the department. He was transferred from his position and forced to work with a social worker who combed through his medical records, hoping to find a past history of mental strain that would justify discrediting Coleman.
“That’s what they do every time,” Coleman said. “We’re veterans who witnessed extremely traumatic events, and they try to use that as a reason to discredit all of our concerns.”
He was called crazy, he was dismissed and he was shunned — all because he was looking out for the wellbeing of fellow veterans.
All for exercising his right to speak out.
And that was only the beginning.
The notice arrived on April 20, 2015: a gag order from the federal government, forbidding Coleman to speak to any VA employees, without any explanation.
“It would have been illegal, according to that order, for me to receive care as a disabled veteran of the United States,” Coleman said. “And I’m only one small guy who was able to fight this. Just think about how many gag orders they’ve placed on people without the means to fight back. That’s the scary part. Think how many veterans they’ve shut up.”
Coleman was luckier than most: He teamed up with Concerned Veterans for America and, with the help of a legal team, was able to prevail on a court that the gag order was an unconstitutional infringement of his freedom of speech.
But Coleman is aware that he is just one case, one man out of many who was denied his freedom of speech, and although groups like Concerned Veterans for America are fighting on, the problem of silenced veterans remains dire.
When 22 veterans a day commit suicide, the system is clearly broken. But if no one is able to speak up, nothing will ever change, and our veterans will continue to suffer long after they return home from battle.
Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.