After an Iranian attack on Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq, President Trump reported that no Americans were injured. When the news broke that some troops were being treated for concussion-like symptoms, Trump shrugged it off, saying they “had headaches and a couple of other things,” which were “not very serious, not very serious.” Compared with “people with no legs and no arms,” the president said, these were “not very serious injuries.”
Multiple news outlets have since reported, however, that 34 service members were being treated not for headaches, but for traumatic brain injuries.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has spoken dismissively or inaccurately about invisible war wounds. Late in the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump discussed war-related post-traumatic stress disorder by saying that “a lot of people can’t handle it.” In 2018, he speculated that a former Marine perpetrated a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, Calif., because he was a “very sick puppy” who “a lot of people say … had PTSD.”
Of course, traumatic brain injuries are more than simple headaches, post-traumatic stress disorder has nothing to do with a person’s inner fortitude, and trauma doesn’t turn former soldiers into killers. Yet because others share Trump’s beliefs, those with invisible and mental disabilities face regular scrutiny and skepticism, whether they’re parking in a handicapped spot or asking for accommodations.
The president’s comments add fuel to the perception that invisible and mental disabilities are illegitimate and the result of mental and physical weakness. This misconception is particularly dangerous in a military context, where showing weakness clashes with expectations of martial masculinity, an ideal that encourages service members of all genders to adhere to codes of military behavior and embody virtues such as bravery, duty and honor. This harmful ideology makes it difficult for troops to seek help without insinuations of cowardice.
Trump is not the first president to use a public platform to dismiss war disabilities he found suspect. President Grover Cleveland, convinced that the pension system that supported Northern Civil War veterans was overgrown and riddled with fraud, also openly dismissed disabilities that he considered “not very serious.”
Cleveland aired his grievance with invisible war wounds in vetoes in which he rejected legislation intended to provide individual Union veterans, already turned away by the Pension Bureau, with federal support. The Pension Bureau, like Trump today, easily acknowledged what it considered real disabilities, particularly amputations, and granted pensions. But it regularly dismissed disabilities that were difficult to prove or that lacked a visual component. Many veterans, in need of the government support promised to wounded troops, turned to their members of Congress for private pension bills to get funding.
On Feb. 4, 1887, however, Cleveland vetoed seven such bills, rejecting more legislation in a single day than most of his predecessors had in their entire terms of office. Cleveland wrote explanations of many of these vetoes, in which he suggested that the former troops in question were weak, insufficiently masculine and immoral.
Abraham Griggs, for instance, tried for decades to get a pension for the chronic rheumatism he acquired during his service in 1862, but was rejected over and over. He hoped that a private pension bill might finally provide the support he needed, but Cleveland was skeptical of Griggs’s claims of disability from the start. Rheumatism was a nebulous ailment, considered so difficult to prove that it was commonly believed that troops faked the illness to avoid hard work or the dangers of battle.
Although Griggs could provide a clean service record as well as proof of his hospitalization and disability discharge, Cleveland was unconvinced. Instead, the president was swayed by the words of a resentful doctor who had accused Griggs of sloth when the ailing soldier refused to perform manual labor while hospitalized. Cleveland quoted the doctor’s allegations that Griggs was “completely worthless … obese and a malingerer.” These words were then republished in popular newspapers and magazines, tarnishing Griggs’s character on a national scale — not unlike one of Trump’s acerbic tweets.
Cleveland vetoed other hopefuls, too, issuing more than 200 such rejections. He directed special ire at those he thought did not live up to the dictates of military masculinity, including those who had died by suicide or used opiates for pain relief. Cleveland vetoed 11 private bills brought by the widows of Union veterans who had killed themselves.
When Jane Potts asked for money in a private bill after her husband, Noah Potts, a traumatized survivor of the notorious Andersonville prison, died by suicide, Cleveland was nonplussed. Instead of considering the contribution of the well-known horrors of Andersonville to Potts’s death, he instead derisively pointed out that some reports of the soldier’s death blamed Jane, who was described as a “rough woman” and “hard talker.” Perhaps, he implied, Jane nagged her husband to death. If that were the case, to Cleveland’s mind, the war wasn’t responsible for Potts’s death; rather, it stemmed from his inability to be a man.
Cleveland rejected the bill of another widow, Laura Wright, because she couldn’t explicitly prove that her husband had hanged himself to escape the pain of a gunshot wound received in the war. He may have had pain “at intervals,” Cleveland reasoned, but because Charles Wright had otherwise been a successful farmer, the pain couldn’t possibly have contributed to his decision. After all, he wasn’t impoverished and had received a pension for 20 years. It wasn’t the government’s fault that “having reached a stage of comfortable living, [he] made his wife a widow by destroying his own life.” Charles Wright, Cleveland strongly suggested, should have tried harder to soldier on.
Cleveland’s hard-line position on military manhood in his veto explanations is particularly interesting given his own military record. Although military service is certainly not the only marker of manhood, it’s one that 19th-century Americans placed great emphasis on (as do many modern Americans).
Like Trump, who received numerous draft deferments, Cleveland avoided being drafted in the Union Army. To get out of military service, Cleveland purchased a substitute — a practice allowed under the 1863 Conscription Act — to take his place. George Benninsky, a Polish immigrant and Great Lakes sailor, accepted $150 to serve in the Army in Cleveland’s stead. Never having experienced the hardships of military life or the dangers of combat, Cleveland nevertheless felt empowered to adjudicate the severity of war wounds and the manhood of veterans.
Today, we recognize the harsh physical and mental toll that war takes on service members. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that post-traumatic stress is diagnosed in 11 to 20 percent of veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and a 2019 VA study found that the suicide rate among veterans, which has risen since 2005, is 1½ times higher than the civilian rate. Although it’s closely associated with football today, traumatic brain injury is also “the signature injury” of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and can cause depression, anxiety and memory loss.
While a traumatic brain injury may not be as readily apparent or loaded with symbolic meaning as the loss of an arm or leg, invisible disabilities pose very real consequences for veterans and countless other Americans. Dismissing traumatic brain injuries as mere headaches feeds a harmful culture of masculinity that encourages troops to prove their bravery by shaking it off. In the 19th century, the attitude that such wounds were “not very serious” resulted in veterans being stripped of federal support. Today, it will result in soldiers choosing not to seek much-needed medical and psychological support — which will undoubtedly make the military mental health crisis worse.