Daniel Gade
Then Republican U.S. Senate candidate Daniel Gade, prepares for a debate with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in Richmond, Virginia, on October 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

On January 4, newly elected Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin named several of his first cabinet members. Among them was fellow Republican Daniel Gade, his new commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services, who ran for the U.S. Senate from the Old Dominion State two years ago, but with less electoral success than Youngkin. The new governor hailed Gade as a man “dedicated to caring for our veterans, championing their concerns, connecting them with resources [and] getting them the proper care.”

On paper, Gade seemed well qualified for a job that involves working with veterans in a state where former military personnel benefit from roughly $3 billion in federal spending every year. A former Army lieutenant colonel, he was badly wounded and lost a leg while serving in Iraq. During his 20-year military career, he earned both a master’s and a doctoral degree in public administration, which enabled him to teach at his alma mater, West Point, and, more recently, at American University. Gade’s prior government service also includes jobs in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations.

But a closer look at Gade’s resume and writings reveals him to be anything but a champion of veterans’ access to federal and state benefits. In fact, he is part of a growing Republican faction that strongly supports the privatization of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Worse yet, he also favors cuts in disability pay for the nearly 6 million veterans with service-related medical conditions.

In Gade’s view, delineated in his 2021 book, Wounding Warriors: How Bad Policy Is Making Veterans Sicker and Poorer,the VA has fostered a costly and unhealthy culture of dependence among veterans—a view embraced three months ago by Robert Wilkie, the Republican operative who served as Trump’s second VA secretary. At a Veterans Day event in Washington, where both Gade and Wilkie spoke, the latter, from his new perch at the conservative Heritage Foundation, accused his former agency of being overly “focused on getting veterans checks and not getting them well and getting them back into society.” Like Gade, he claimed that veterans service organizations (VSOs) encourage former military personnel “to play disability.” In other words, too many veterans—whether they served in combat zones or not—are getting undeserved compensation.

Nevertheless, in GOP circles locally and nationally, Gade is a rising star. And his new job in Virginia makes him a leading candidate to become VA secretary in any future Republican administration.

In Wounding Warriors, which he cowrote with the former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Huang, Gade launches an assault on the “disability-industrial complex.” In his telling, the VA, our second-largest federal agency by number of personnel, “robs veterans of their vitality,” privileges “lifetime disability and malaise over recovery in mental and physical health,” and spawns a “culture of entitlement” among veterans and a pernicious “network of enablers.”

These “enablers” include counselors from the Warrior Transition Units created by the Department of Defense to ease difficult military-to-civilian life transitions; VA doctors and disability claims processors; and volunteers from the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, who help their fellow veterans apply for GI Bill assistance, health care coverage, and other benefits that are a major incentive for joining America’s all-volunteer military.

According to Gade and Huang, these federal departments collude with the VSOs to divert former military personnel “from paths of self-sufficiency” and steer them “down paths of dependency and dysfunction.” As a result, they write, many stay sick, rather than get better, and end up in “a quagmire of despair.”  

Central to such claims is the authors’ misleading assertion that the “the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been among the safest in American history.” That would certainly be a revelation to the hundreds of thousands killed in combat, including Afghans and Iraqis, along with the millions of U.S. service members who suffered from toxic exposures and debilitating injuries. As Gade and Huang see it, only a relatively small number of American troops died in these two conflicts (about 7,054). Back home, however, even as the overall veteran population fell by about a third, from 26.4 million to 18 million between 2000 and 2020, “the number of veterans receiving disability benefits nearly doubled.” 

Gade’s views should worry the roughly 780,000 veterans in Virginia. Only four other states have a higher percentage of veterans in their population, and only three have more active-duty troops and reservists. More than half of Virginia’s veterans served after 9/11, making them part of what Gade and Huang call “a generation that wants to be given everything even if they don’t deserve it.” 

In reality, the increase in VA disability benefit costs is not due to widespread scamming of the system. It reflects the collateral damage suffered by many participants in America’s twenty-first- century wars. As part of a military that deployed many of them multiple times, younger veterans were exposed to greater risk of harm than the draftees who mainly served a single of tour of duty in the killing fields of Southeast Asia six decades ago. What’s more, advances in medicine and battlefield triage since Vietnam have also ensured that severely injured service members are five times more likely to survive potentially fatal wounds than in previous wars. Those casualty figures have translated into a costly need to provide more long-term care and compensation, not less.

Between 2006 and 2015, the number of veterans requiring VA-provided mental health services rose from 900,000 annually to 1.6 million. As more women joined the military, more were subjected to sexual harassment, physical assault, and rape. They now carry the invisible scars of military sexual trauma, a service-related condition little noted by Gade and Huang. Veterans of all types, particularly people of color, experience higher-than-average rates of joblessness, homelessness, chronic pain, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Gade’s exclusive focus on combat injuries also ignores the fact that the Defense Department is one of the world’s worst polluters. Service members (and their families) risk the consequences due to their proximity to bases with toxic exposures. According to a report by the Pentagon, there are 126 military installations where the drinking water is contaminated. Equally disconcerting, since the first Gulf War, an estimated 4 million service members have been exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and other chemical hazards. 

Gade distinguishes those kinds of benefits claims from conditions like his own, which are “truly static and unlikely to improve—amputations, spinal cord injuries, etc.” He describes veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder as “wannabes” because they tell their therapists “stories that sound a lot like a bad day rather than a traumatic moment.” There is little recognition in the book of what many mental health experts believe is a “suicide crisis”; according to recent data, roughly 20 vets a day take their own lives.   

According to Wounding Warriors, the VA simply doles out money to any vet who applies for it; in fact, hundreds of thousands of individual disability claims are denied every year, often leading to protracted and frustrating legal appeals. Ignoring that reality, Gade and Huang try to stick more of the blame on Congress—which, they write, foots the bill with no questions asked. In their view, both parties are driven by their own political imperatives to support veterans. The political right sees military service as the highest expression of patriotism, recognizes veteran support as important to its base, and would never oppose veteran-related spending. (That claim would be true only if it referred to knee-jerk congressional support for ever-bigger Pentagon budgets.) Meanwhile, the political left is deeply invested in the VA’s system as “a prototype of their desired single-payer system.”

In reality, as we note in a forthcoming book, few figures on the left—other than Senator Bernie Sanders—have embraced and defended the VA as a good working model of socialized medicine. At the same time, many centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans have become bipartisan enablers of VA privatization, a longtime goal of right-wing mega-donors like the Koch family, who don’t want taxpayer-funded cradle-to-grave care for anyone. 

Gade and Wilkie are not the only former Trump administration officials to question the cost and effectiveness of the VA benefits system. Before he was sacked by the White House in 2018 for not outsourcing more veterans’ care to the private sector, VA Secretary David Shulkin called, perhaps more tactfully, for new “thinking about benefits.” In Shulkin’s view, “we need more incentives for achieving wellness and independence.” Unlike Gade, however, Shulkin made clear that “this is not about taking away benefits. This is about making benefits work better for veterans.”

Gade is not likely to run afoul of Youngkin, as Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover, did with Trump. That means former soldiers in Virginia are about to get a four-year taste of conservative “tough love” in their own state. It will be a painful preview for what Republicans ultimately hope to do at the federal level. 

Suzanne Gordon and Steve Early

Suzanne Gordon is the author of Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans. Steve Early is a longtime labor journalist and union activist. They are collaborating on a book about veterans’ affairs and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com