Anyone who reads this blog has probably deduced circumstances currently govern the topics. Not odd considering my beloved often accuses me of thinking things to death, and with his sixth back surgery looming . . .
My sweetheart got hurt at work. Over a year passed with no help forthcoming while the injury worsened. Desperate to help him, I sought pain management, but that provided no relief. Since I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer any longer, I caved and took him to a veteran’s hospital.
I’ll spare you the details, but it took two years—and engaging a lawyer—before my love’s employer stepped up and admitted culpability, putting the responsibility where it belonged.
There are numerous reasons I dislike military hospitals, but I’m deeply grateful to those VA doctors who helped my beloved during that difficult time.
Unfortunately, most countries haven’t always been willing to care for those who’ve served. Various things I’d read over the years illuminated the sad plight of veterans throughout history—which started me thinking . . .
Research has made it clear American vets have had an easier road than their European counterparts. I’m not saying easy, mind you, just easier.
As far back as Plymouth Colony (1636), the Pilgrims passed a law providing for soldiers disabled by their war with the Pequot Indians. Being of European descent, the settlers had seen and/or lived the horrors visited upon disabled soldiers and their families. Thus, it’s not surprising they took steps to assure that tragedy didn’t repeat itself in the New World.
In 1776, the Continental Congress used the promise of a pension for those disabled while fighting for America’s freedom as an enlistment incentive. Medical care, however, was left to individual states and communities.
In 1811, the Federal Government authorized the first domiciliary and medical facility. Also in the 1800s, veterans’ assistance was expanded to include widows and dependents.
State Veterans’ Homes, established after the Civil War, provided medical treatment to their residents whether or not the injury or illness was service related. Indigent and disabled vets from the wars that followed—Indian, the Spanish-American, and Mexican Border—were also welcome.
Care for American servicemen and women grew and expanded until, in 1989, the Department of Veterans Affairs gained a Cabinet position, giving veterans a voice in the highest echelons of government.
We accept the medieval era ran rife with superstition, ignorance, and cruelty that lasted until the ascension of the Renaissance. In the case of European war veterans, The Renaissance never came; the dark ages lasted well into 19th century.
Most people have some familiarity with feudalism, which had its English roots in the Conquest of 1066. Truth be told, during most of the dark and middle ages, as a matter of protection, every man owed fealty to someone—even the king held his crown by God’s grace. If the king’s latest snit resulted in war and soldiers were required, duty called, and, as always, the common people suffered most.
Conscription provided the bulk of the army. How was it done? Since some titles with which the modern reader is familiar weren’t used in England until the 14th century, we’ll use the chain of command established after the conquest. Thus, the king declared war and rallied his earls. The earls would, in their turn, rally their barons. Sending men house to house if need be, each earl and baron would conscript from the villages, towns, or countryside under his jurisdiction, sometimes taking boys and old men, until the promised numbers were met.
You could consider it the medieval equivalent of a press gang.
While knights, mercenaries, and garrison soldiers trained regularly, the conscripted, the largest contingent of most armies, were given little, if any, training, and their equipment was rudimentary, at best. If they wanted better armor or weapons, they had to secure it themselves.
Conscription provided daunting numbers, but that’s all. Farmers and tradesmen who had never wielded a sword in battle fought for their lives against a mixture of others like themselves and hardened warriors. While a tabard or device of some kind might be provided to distinguish friend from foe, a man could be dead ere he made the distinction. It’s no wonder death tolls ran into the thousands.
Sadly, many of the men who survived considered those who didn’t the lucky ones. As one of my characters says, “A king takes a farmer, makes him a soldier, and if he’s foolish enough to live through it, tosses him aside like rubbish.”
Ofttimes, homes and farms were completely destroyed—if not by the warfare itself, by foraging armies, the desire to assure there would be naught to aid the opposing force, and, sometimes, man’s inhumanity to man. Barbarism of the worst sort often accompanied armies, either encouraged or mitigated by their commanders’ attitudes toward the populace. Too often, these noble commanders not only turned a blind eye to the heinous crimes perpetrated by their troops but led them in their vile assaults, leaving decimated families in their wakes.
Many a veteran returned to find his family either beggared or deceased and his home and livelihood gone—often at the hands of his commander’s allies. Veterans who lost limbs, appendages, eyes, hearing, sight, or their mental capacity, as well as those suffering chronic pain from back, joint, and/or head injuries, had few options. Work was scarce for fit men; disabled men were not even considered.
After every war, anger and frustration drove some veterans to outlawry. Bands of disenfranchised ex-soldiers plagued the land. The belief the nobility owed them salved the conscience of the more moral. The morally corrupt or bankrupt needed no salve. These returned to their natural milieu upon being mustered out (if they didn’t desert first) armed with an excuse they exploited with impunity.
Some veterans were reduced to begging, their injuries such they had no alternative. Some watched, helpless, as their children, some mere babes, were sold into servitude (which often translated to prostitution) to cover mounting debts, or wives and daughters walked the streets to provide for the family. Keep in mind, these were uneducated people. Their choices were few, and women had even fewer options. Those women who thought to avoid selling themselves by hiring on as servants often endured the importuning of their master, his guests, or his sons. If the woman became pregnant, whether by rape or consent, she’d be out on the street with no recourse. (The first English law that made rape a crime wasn’t enacted until 1452.)
Disabled veterans sometimes took their own lives rather than endure the humiliation, heartbreak, and helplessness.
You can’t blame them. At the beginning of the 19th century, the much-lauded Duke of Wellington once described the enlisted men who brought him victory over Napoleon as “the scum of the earth”. Later in that same century, Florence Nightingale, horrified by what she’d seen, described the hospital in Scutari, Turkey, to which the British wounded were taken, as “the last Kingdom of Hell.”
Much of what occurred with war veterans through the centuries resulted from the aristocratic mindset. The nobility looked down upon the common folk, considered them rabble. Regency era toffs called them The Great Unwashed. Few appreciated those who labored for them, most assuming their lineage entitled them to that labor, leaving little or no regard for those who made it possible for them live as they did.
Unfortunately, that entitlement mindset has reared its ugly head in America a time or ten, but our “government by the people, for the people” has kept the worst of it at bay—for now.
To quote Churchill, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”