Congressional Inaction Is Like an 'Abusive Relationship' to Some Veterans

Former service members rail against lawmakers' 'playing games' at World War II Memorial rally.

Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which organized the rally Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Iraq veteran Paul Rieckhoff is the founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which helped organize Tuesday’s rally at the National World War II Memorial.

By + More

More than two weeks of a government shutdown have left many of America's 22 million war veterans looking nervously toward end of the month, when many of their benefits might run out if Congress fails to act.

[READ: Shutdown to Rob 5 Million Vets of Their Benefits, VA Secretary Says]

Aside from the subsequent damages done by the shutdown itself – including hiccups in burial and death benefits – many veterans and those who represent them are resentful of a Congress that appears to play games at their expense.

"It's going to take a while before we can trust again," says Gary Benenati, a retired Marine Corps corporal who attended a rally on Tuesday at the National World War II Memorial. "It's kind of like an abusive relationship. You're going to get out of it, but you're going to question your next partner."

"It's going to take a while to heal," he adds.

Benenati, decked out in motorcycle gear adorned with veterans patches, was injured during his military training. Many of his comrades died during campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He calls the shutdown harmful and disgraceful, and says, "I'm not embarrassed to be an American, but I'm embarrassed of our behavior right now."

None of the fewer than 200 who attended the rally received any pushback from nearby police or National Park Service rangers at the memorial, despite metal barricades and signs indicating it remains closed. The rally differed from a similar event on Sunday, which turned into a heated protest as participants carried these barricades a few blocks north to the White House and threw them against the outer gates.

Tuesday's event was organized by The Military Coalition. More than 30 other veterans advocacy groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warrior Project and New York-based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America sponsored the event and contributed speakers.

"Inside the Beltway, this is a game," says Tom Tarantino, IAVA's policy chief and a former Army cavalry officer in Iraq. "For veterans outside the Beltway...this is their life."

[ALSO: Shutdown Prevents Death Benefits for Families of Fallen Soldiers]

"[Congress needs] to start taking us more seriously as a group," he says of his fellow veterans. "We have not seen a lot of faith in the government that is supposed to protect us, especially those who are in need of protection the most."

The backlog in veterans disability claims – a top priority for IAVA's efforts before Congress – has once again begun to grow, Tarantino says.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has helped shrink this backlog, told Congress on Oct. 9 that as many as 5 million veterans may lose their benefits if the shutdown continues. This includes the many wounded service members and their families who rely solely on these benefits for income.

Many veterans at the event on Tuesday pointed to the shortfalls for burials and death benefits delivered to the families of troops killed in action. Philanthropic group The Fisher House Foundation announced on Oct. 9 it would donate those funds to the Defense Department.

Jerry Shreiner, a Marine Corps veteran, says the veteran response to the government shutdown reminds him of the years following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's empowered people to come down here," he said Tuesday, holding a massive American flag following the formal remarks at Tuesday's event. The average citizen began thanking veterans after the 2001 attacks that redefined America's war footing. The former Marine, who served from 1998-2002, says he is starting to see that again after more than a decade of bloody, grueling war.

[MORE: Shutdown Damages Military More Than Staff Reductions]

Shreiner also distanced himself from the partisanship he sees creeping into events like Tuesday's rally. He attended a similar and much larger event on Sunday for the chief purpose of supporting World War II veterans who have been blocked from their memorial on the National Mall due to the shutdown.

That event received widespread media attention following remarks by tea party figureheads former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Shreiner says they, like the widely photographed participant who carried a Confederate flag, "hijacked" the event that should have remained apolitical.

Correction 10/15/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the group that organized the event on Tuesday.