At the dining room table of this modest Penn Hills home, Joseph Gluvna has convened the relevant documents with the kind of reflexive precision you acquire from having given 21 years of decorated military service to your country.
Principally, it was correspondence he was showing me. Letters to state and federal representatives, to both Pennsylvania senators, and responses from both them and the various bureaucracies to whom a 54-year-old veteran with service-related hearing loss is still somehow required to genuflect.
But this is mostly about a five-page handwritten letter to George W. Bush he wrote here Feb. 8. Five pages starting "Dear Mr. President" from a military man with 10 years of active duty and 11 in the reserves to his Commander-in-Chief. Five pages on his grave concerns for those in service now, on the viability of the Iraqi operation, on America's role in global politics, on the difficulties faced by veterans in getting benefits due them, and on a half-dozen other salient points. Five pages that sit on his table and agitate him like little else, mostly because they represent too great an effort. Too great an effort for a guy working the afternoon shift at the North Side post office to have exerted on a government that develops its own selective hearing loss on any number of issues, and particularly to the voices of America's veterans.
And too great an effort, certainly, for what he got in return, which is three formulated paragraphs of absolute crap explaining in only the broadest terms the nature of Bush's business in Iraq, including the assurance that the military would be doing its level best not to harm innocent civilians (6,000 are dead at the last count), and including -- this has to be Joe Gluvna's favorite part -- a one-sentence tribute that begins, "by answering the call of duty, these brave men and women serve as an example of courage, bravery, and ... "
George W. Bush is telling Joe Gluvna this?
"A slap in the face for somebody like me," Joe says, his eyes nearly blazing. "Look, it's not like I'm some big combat hero, it's not like that. But look, let me show you."
He shows me the family room wall that fronts his stairway. It frames a wholly unpretentious display of commendations, photos, and medals from a military career that spanned from Okinawa (during Vietnam) to Egypt and Saudi Arabia during Bush War I. George W. Bush has no such wall.
And now ...
"I went to Memorial Day services out here," he said. "When they played the national anthem, I didn't even salute. I think about my son. He's 20. Would I want him going into the service now? I don't want to see anybody killed or maimed needlessly. We'll spend a billion dollars a week over there in Iraq, and we've got veterans here at home who can't get the benefits they're entitled to. I wouldn't want to see the young people in the military get snookered like me. The government uses you and throws you away like an old shoe."
Joe's wife, Marsha, sits in the family room patiently, as if she's maybe heard some of this before. But she knows the pain he feels, and has felt it herself.
"Should I tell her about Laurie?" she says.
Oh yeah, I say.
"I went to high school with her," Marsha says, "and I got a letter from her just a few weeks ago. She's in South Dakota. Her husband, Gary, died July 9. She's still fighting the VA for his benefits, even though doctors said it was from Agent Orange. Started with a melanoma near his jaw. He was in Vietnam until 1974. He was only 48.
"But that's what the government wants. They want you either to die or get frustrated."
Joe's gotten plenty frustrated, but he has refiled for federal disability payments even though he knows his claim is destined to rot in the Washington bureaucracy. So far, in the view of the Veterans Administration, he has a 10 percent hearing loss but is not entitled to any benefit as a result. Plus, he says, any disability payment he would get is deducted from his military pension.
"Do you think if a senator fell down the steps of the Capitol, his disability payments would be taken out of his retirement?" he says.
I don't know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure Joe won't be writing to George Bush for one.
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