Perhaps, if military veterans affiliated with the Iowa Democratic Party had been barred from a state-sponsored parade to recognize and honor all veterans and their allies one time, it could be dismissed as an administrative error. But first approving and then banning a group that had been allowed to participate numerous times over the past decade appears to show just how wide the nation’s partisan gap has become.
Documents obtained by The Gazette show the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus had made application to the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs at least three times since 2008 and been approved to participate in the Iowa State Fair Veterans Day Parade. In fact, the group filed a similar application this year after receiving an invitation on state letterhead inviting them to do so, and received a welcome letter and parking permits after applying. It wasn’t until the Friday afternoon before the Monday parade that a phone call from Commission of Veterans Affairs Chairman Dan Gannon alerted the Democratic veterans of a problem, that rules governing the parade supposedly prohibited any overtly partisan group from marching and being recognized for their service.
Information distributed by the state describes the parade, held on the first Monday of the State Fair as one aspect of a broader initiative to honor all veterans, as one of eight annual events affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The Iowa State Fair Veterans Parade is a long-standing fair tradition,” according to state documents.
“The onlookers are as varied as the parade entries: Veterans, veteran’s service and support groups, friends of veterans and patriotic Americans. Many are Iowans; many come from across the country and around the world. We hope to see you in the parade or applauding our veterans from the curb.”
Standing on the curb is exactly what the veterans affiliated with the Democratic Party were forced to do. They stood with their parade banner, saluting other military men and women the state department deemed worthy of public recognition. They were also left to wonder why their service to the country had been so easily dismissed when Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican elected official in the midst of a competitive re-election campaign and a non-veteran, was allowed to march in the parade. Likewise the corporate and nonprofit interests who were allowed to participate.
Ron Healey of Durango, who chairs the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus, noted his group had marched under Democratic and Republican state administrations.
“By dis-inviting our veterans from a parade they have marched in for years, the Reynolds administration is telling Democratic veterans that their service is worth less than others’ for purely partisan reasons,” Healey said, adding that the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs and Veterans Commission, run by Branstad-Reynolds appointees, could not produce the rules they said prohibited the group from marching.
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Gov. Kim Reynolds tried to deflect this criticism, directing reporters’ questions to the Commission, and reiterating that the parade isn’t partisan.
“This is about our veterans and it should be about saluting and celebrating them,” she said.
But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happened.
In responding to public outcry about the decision to ban some veterans from the parade, Commission Chairman Gannon told the Des Moines Register that the decision was made by a parade committee — “a handful of parade officials representing the Iowa National Guard, himself, and the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.” He said the decision was actually made by the committee in 2016, but was not shared with the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus.
Email messages provided by the Democratic Veterans’ Caucus appear to refute this assertion. Those messages from 2015 show that a Veterans Affairs staff member placed the group’s parade application briefly on hold to check if a group with a partisan affiliation was allowed to march. Two weeks later, the issue appears to be resolved because, in answer to a status inquiry by the caucus, the staff member replies that the group’s welcome letter and parking permits were in the mail and should arrive soon.
And if the decision was made two years earlier, why would the group be extended an invitation to participate and have its application for the parade initially approved? How did we get to point of a last-minute phone call from one Governor-appointed representative?
Further, there is no mention on the Department’s website of a parade committee. In fact, there is no mention of a parade committee in the official minutes of the Commission dating back to 2010. The group listed eight subcommittees as part of its minutes, including groups to oversee legislative concerns, the Veterans’ Trust Fund, Iowa Veterans Home, the License Plate Fund, county training, outreach and the Iowa Veterans Cemetery. Of those groups, only the Trust Fund subcommittee has posted meeting minutes.
The only mentions of the State Fair Veterans Day Parade are found in updates from IDVA staff members, reminding Commissioners of the upcoming date for the event. In contrast, far more attention is given to the Department’s Day on the Hill, when veterans are encouraged to travel to Des Moines and speak directly with lawmakers at the Statehouse.
There are also no documents on the website maintained by the Governor’s office to solicit applications for the Commission. (Those interested in serving should know there is currently a vacancy.) And no mention of such a subcommittee in the administrative rules governing the Department, although the rules do provide an appeals process for decisions by other subcommittees.
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These distinctions are important because decisions by the Department and the Commission affect the welfare of all Iowa veterans. These are the groups that determine how veterans, regardless of their political affiliation, are offered aid to repair homes and vehicles, who work shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of other veterans’ organization to provide health care, trauma assistance and recognition.
Not only do Iowans need assurance that their annual veterans’ parade at the State Fair is free from partisanship, they should demand all state veterans’ programs and services be held to the highest non-partisan levels. No such assurances are present in the way this incident was handled, in the finger-pointing aftermath by state officials, or the disrespect shown to a group of veterans.
Our nation’s veterans — all of our nation’s veterans — have earned dignity and respect. It’s an ugly day, and a dismal testimony to the partisan acrimony present in Iowa, when state bodies tasked with protecting and honoring those who served are content to set some on the curb.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org