Schram (Avoiding Armageddon, 2003, etc.) combines history, investigative journalism, advocacy and diatribe as he criticizes each branch of the federal government for its abysmal treatment of needy war veterans.
During the first Gulf war, Army E4 Specialist Bill Florey suffered exposure to chemical weapons while in a combat zone. First the Pentagon denied that troops had been exposed. Then the Department of Veterans Affairs, a federal agency, denied benefits, even after Florey developed cancer consistent with exposure to chemical weapons. He died in his mid-30s after more than a decade of pain, refusing to complain and proud of having fought in the U.S. military. Schram opens the book with Florey not because his case is extreme, but because it is in many ways typical of the callous treatment meted out to loyal veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and all levels of the judiciary. After playing out the Florey melodrama, Schram adds other case studies that demonstrate failures by each branch of government. His strong and empathetic reporting reflects his experience as Washington bureau chief for Newsday and national correspondent at the Washington Post. When the author manages access to secretive, defensive officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, his confrontational interviews prompt some to stonewall, others to concede that they poorly serve their constituency. Promises of reform are usually empty words, Schram emphasizes. Most Americans assume that the proud words about our troops uttered by the Bush White House and previous administrations have been accompanied by proper care for the severely injured and the survivors of the dead. The author does his best to blast that comforting idea out of the water.
Overheated prose and much repetition, not to mention the grim subject matter, make this an unpleasant—but vital—read.