Economy Military T.J. Thompson

The Military Wasn’t a Way Out of Poverty For Me

Instead, militarism is why so many of us are poor in the first place.
[Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By T.J. Thompson | Other Words

I grew up on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in southern Virginia. We lived in a sewage-ravaged, bug-infested trailer park. I didn’t realize we were poor at first — I thought that’s just how things were.

But it was a difficult place to grow up, and as I got older, I wanted to escape. So I took what I thought was my only chance to get out of poverty — I joined the military.

Now I know why they say poverty is a “back door draft.”

After deploying to the Persian Gulf in 2003 and experiencing unspeakable horrors, my military duty finally ended and I took the best job available to me — working in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The work was hazardous. I spent hours each day climbing around in tanks and voids on submarines that had to be certified safe to enter. There was always welding, grinding, sandblasting, and paint chipping going on. When I started coughing up black sludge, I knew I had to escape again.

Poverty, I learned, is one long escape attempt after another.

By then I was married with children. I got myself into culinary school on the path to a better life. Then the Great Recession hit. As the economy collapsed around us, we often had to choose between paying bills and buying groceries.

These years of trauma wreaked havoc on my mental health. I got some cookie-cutter, drug-based mental health treatment from the Veterans Administration, but that made things worse. At times the VA treatment had me in lockdown 24/7. I was treated as a number, not as an individual.

I’m sharing this because stories like mine are all too common, but we don’t hear them very often — especially around holidays like the Fourth of July.

More than 30,000 veterans have taken their own lives since 9/11, and over 8 million Americans fell into poverty last year. Yet our country continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on wars and the Pentagon, instead of building real paths out of poverty for people who grew up like I did.

Corporations and the military-industrial complex profit from our poverty. They get cheap labor and fatter profit margins. The rest of us deal with the interlocking effects of poverty — like poor health, trauma, poisonous living conditions, and all kinds of structural barriers to opportunities.

This is a political choice. And we can choose differently.

For me, things turned a corner when I found Veterans for Peace, a non-profit organization of veterans like me who understand that prioritizing federal spending on war and weapons over social programs keeps people down.

Veterans for Peace helped connect me to holistic treatment and support that heals rather than harms. It also connected me to the bigger movement against poverty — like the Fight for $15, in which low-wage workers fight for our own economic empowerment by demanding a fair wage.

Finally, I found the Poor People’s Campaign, which follows in the steps of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts to end poverty in this country. Veterans for Peace became a sponsoring member of The Poor People’s campaign, making the connections between militarism and poverty.

We believe that to truly fight poverty, we must slash the Pentagon budget. We can cut our annual military spending by at least $350 billion and still keep ourselves safe while building a more equitable society.

For me, the military wasn’t a way out of poverty. Instead, militarism is why so many of us are poor in the first place. But if more low-wage workers, veterans, and others work together, we can make the investments we need to choose human decency over war, trauma, and poverty.

T.J. Thompson

T.J. Thompson

T.J. Thompson is a post-9/11 veteran of the U.S. Navy from Virginia and a member of Veterans For Peace and the Poor People’s Campaign. This op-ed was distributed by


  1. Gen Eisenhower “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?

  2. Every time I hear some godawful politician say, “God bless our troops,” I grind my teeth in anger again. Yeah, some supposed white guy up in the sky w/a long beard better bless ’em because all most pols know are empty promises. Thet don’t take care of the veterans when they suffer w/ PTSD; most VA care is not helpful. That’s why so many suicides; their once beautiful minds have been shattered from the horrors they’ve lived. Thanks to this brave man who has come to see the truth. The pols in SC are almost all in the game to enrich themselves, not to practice “tikkun olam,” the healing and repair of the world. One pol in particular whom I came to know as a citizen activist for the “end of hunger and the worst aspects of poverty[ almost 25l yrs] was D-SC Jim Clyburn, a “hitman for corporate welfare,” a black man just as corrupt as white Trump & his ilk.

  3. They never ask how ‘we’ are going to pay for the war budget. They just do it. If poverty was handled as the crisis it is, the poverty draft supplying soldiers into the armed forces would dry up. Then who’d fight except some gun-ho dupes? If poverty was reduced or eliminated, crime, drug addiction and violence would also come down. But then we wouldn’t need so many police and jails and courts and security guards and … However, poverty is built into this class system. They cannot eliminate it without challenging the whole profit economy.

    1. Thanks so much for your post. You’ve opened my eyes wider. I never saw the entrenchment of poverty as having been built in to the whole capitalist framework. You are so right, of course!

      Please consider writing a book in which you develop these ideas more fully, and with chapter&verse examples–say, from different ethnicities and how capitalism forces all its horrors of war&sickness as built in and that’s why “the poor are always with us.” Why politicians don’t vote for anti-poverty programs because the corporations that buy these pols, to keep the whole rotten system continuing, profit off the misery.

      I am sure you could get experts from non-profits or social scientists to work on it with you, Then y’all would be invited on shows to speak about your research.
      Mebbe start w/Oprah Winfrey or Cornel West or the excellent journalist Robert Scheer.
      Bet if you wrote to them, asking them to direct you,they would.
      I can envision your book being the linchpin to a whole new better future.
      PLS do it!!

    2. Red Frog,

      The capitalist system will always manipulate the playing field in order to fill boots, even if the U.S. Government has to finally resort to recruits originating from the prison-industrial complex.

      Trust me… even if the hydrogen economy finally manifests itself and saves both the environment and the economy, there will be MORE than enough under-educated nationalist felons ready to volunteer for combat service to keep our sadistic war machine chugging along for another decade or two.

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