John Koopman has been a Marine, a war correspondent in Iraq, and a manager at a strip club, among other things. His journey through precarity in the weird 21st century started in earnest after the bottom fell out of the newspaper business. That was when sacrifice or experience seemed to matter, and John found himself laid off and out of the middle class. It was a different war than the one he had experienced before: This time the battle was for consistent and meaningful employment, and its timeframe was indefinite.

On this episode of Going for Broke With Ray Suarez, John explains how he went from Baghdad’s Firdos Square to working at a strip club, and all that came next, including stints at a dive bar, driving for Uber, and more. You’ll hear how John came to rely on a vital safety net: the Veterans Health Administration. We’ll also hear from Aaron Jackson, a scholar studying the VA at the University of California–San Francisco, about how the agency could be a model for the health care system the rest of us need.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Ray Suarez: From the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation, this is Going for Broke, stories of people living tough times, and conversations about solutions that give us hope. I’m Ray Suarez. This episode has special meaning as Veterans Day approaches. It’s the story of former war correspondent and ex-Marine John Koopman, and where he landed after he lost his newspaper job.

John Koopman: The first night I went to work at that strip club, and I walked in there thinking, “This is now my new job,” I was like, “Oh my God, I’m that guy. I am the biggest failure in the history of the world. I’m working at a strip club, emptying trash cans, and counting money.” It seemed so small, and so mundane for a guy who had been at Firdos Square a couple years earlier.

Ray Suarez: Firdos Square is the spot in Baghdad where US Marines toppled that giant statue of Saddam Hussein during the Iraq War. John was covering it for the San Francisco Chronicle. Just a few years later, he was laid off, like so many other journalists after the Great Recession—and not just journalists.

John Koopman: Everybody I knew was losing their jobs, scrambling. Everything just melted. It felt like the entire world had changed overnight, and we were just the ones who were left holding the bag.

Ray Suarez: Some of his newspaper colleagues went into public relations, but John couldn’t see himself doing that. He was looking for something that matched the rush of reporting.

John Koopman: Even way back in high school I got this taste for adrenaline. Not big, I don’t jump out of airplanes and stuff like that, but it’s more like micro dosing.

Ray Suarez: So, he applied for a job he saw on Craigslist, managing a strip club. For John, it would be the next stop along his intense journey through America’s weird 21st century.

John Koopman: I saw more and I understood more about human nature working for two years at a strip club than I ever got as a journalist.

Ray Suarez: We’ll get back to the strip club, and how today’s short-term jobs have become their own kind of war for workers. But first, let’s hear the story of John’s career, and how his status as a veteran, ultimately, helped cushion him when his luck ran out.

Archival audio of recruitment ad: We don’t promise you a rose garden. We only make one promise: We’ll make you a Marine, but we’re only looking for…

John Koopman: The smartest thing I ever did was join the military.

Ray Suarez: John grew up in a small town in Nebraska. He joined the Marines right out of high school, so he could see the world, and learn a trade.

Archival audio of recruitment ad: We’re looking for men who believe nobody likes to fight, but somebody has to know how.

Ray Suarez: He did boot camp in South Carolina, electronics training in California, and was stationed in Okinawa and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Later, he went to college on the GI bill and became a reporter, eventually ending up at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then came 9/11.

Archival audio: Engine… Engine 1-0. Engine 1-0, it’s the World Trade Center 10-60. Send every available ambulance, everything you’ve got to the World Trade Center now.

John Koopman: 9/11 was the beginning of everything.

Ray Suarez: John was working as an editor the day the planes hit the Twin Towers. By the time the US was getting ready to invade Iraq in 2003, he had returned to reporting.

John Koopman: Because I had been in the military, our foreign editor came to me and asked me if I was interested in helping out with the coverage. And it was a natural fit, because I had been in the Marines.

Archival audio: At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.

Ray Suarez: John embedded with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

John Koopman: And there was a lot of combat, there was a lot of fighting all along the way. And I got what I was looking for out of that, which was like a close-up view of the war.

Ray Suarez: He became a crucial link between the Marines he was traveling with and their families back home.

John Koopman: In many cases, I mean, I’m out there with a satellite phone and any chance I got to let a guy phone home, sometimes—sometimes in the middle of battle [laughs]. There would be, like, explosions in the background, some kid be saying, “Mom, mom! Can you hear me?”

Ray Suarez: John’s Marine unit was the first to reach Baghdad.

John Koopman: As we entered the city, there was this sense of like, “This must be a trap.” Or, “Something is about to go on. There’s going to be an ambush. Something really horrible is going to happen.” And then moment by moment, it kept not happening and not happening. And little by little, that fear slipped.

Ray Suarez: John remembers the sense of relief and the joy of reuniting with colleagues who had spent the war in Baghdad. And that iconic moment when US Marines pulled down Saddam statue using a tank retriever.

John Koopman: This enormous armored vehicle, you think about a tank, it’s bigger than a tank, because it has to fix tanks. Anyway, the thing starts backing up and you see the statue slowly, slowly come crashing to the ground, and the crowd went wild!

Ray Suarez: That initial sense of US victory didn’t last long. When John returned to Iraq the following year, the insurgency was gaining force.

Archival audio: Good evening, everyone. The United States has had, by all accounts, a terrible day in Iraq. Tonight, US forces are trying to put down resistance in seven different cities. In some cases, the Iraqi opposition…

John Koopman: I saw the disintegration of everything. There was a such a disconnect between the two sides. I was with the army in Ramadi, and we got hit by a roadside bomb. Nobody in the Humvee I was in was killed. Blew out their eardrums, a couple of guys, but to be in the middle of a blast like that gives you a perspective on what those guys were dealing with every single day. And it was really a kind of a freakish moment.

Ray Suarez: John knew he could only survive so many roadside bombs. His son was just 8 years old at the time. He made three trips to Iraq in all.

John Koopman: Bullets landed next to me. A bomb went off next to me. I was hit by an artillery shell that killed two guys. I was standing next to a guy who was shot by an Iraqi machine gun and died. I can count a dozen times when I could have easily been dead. And would’ve been one of those footnotes in journalism history.

Ray Suarez: Instead, John became a different kind of footnote. Back home in the US, There was another kind of war brewing.

Archival audio: What we know now is Wall Street can bring down Main Street. And, frankly, I’m going to tell you, it’s a little scary, your company…

Archival audio of President Obama: We are in the most serious financial crisis in generations.

Archival audio: A new report finds that foreclosure filings in the US rose 81 percent last year. And foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac says more than 860,000 properties were repossessed by lenders.

Archival audio: There’s a fresh sign of pain in the job market, the Labor Department—

Ray Suarez: The economy was tanking. The financial crisis was looming. Newspapers, like John’s, were struggling to survive.

John Koopman: And I was way too stupid to see the writing on the walls. I was just like, “Oh, there’s always been newspapers around. There’s always going to be newspaper around.” But even at the paper, they kept talking about how much money we were losing. Then we had a round of layoffs and it’s like, “Oh, but I’m not going to get laid off. I’m the guy who covered the war.” And all of a sudden I go from being a hot shot reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle to being… you know, out on the street.

Part of you feels free. Like, “All right, to hell with these people go do something else. I’ll go find another way.” Part of you it feels like, “Boy, there is no loyalty.” I mean, literally, literally as much is the word literally can possibly literally mean literally, I put my life on the line for this place. And to have somebody then say, “Yeah, well what have you done for us lately?”—you know? “You’re just not what we’re looking for.”

Ray Suarez: He was one casualty among many. Newspapers shrank drastically in the years after that with newsroom jobs falling 57 percent between 2008 and 2020. And those cuts were part of a much larger story, diminishing job security, and pay in what it had been reliable, middle-class professions: lawyers, professors, municipal employees, teachers.

John Koopman: You could find every kind of person and almost everybody had the same story. “Well, there I was, working, doing my thing, and boom, I got laid off. My company went out of business. I had to take a pay cut.”

Ray Suarez: At the same time, being middle class was becoming twice as expensive. Costs for housing, medical care, education, all soared. John lived this arc. He was at the center, and then at the end of a great American story. His journey from star correspondent to strip club manager said it all.

John Koopman: I was on my feet, like sometimes 12 hours. You almost never sat down. You were responsible for all the money—you were responsible for everything. You had to deal with fights. You had to deal with drug dealers, with pimps.

Ray Suarez: Above all, John had to manage staff and enforce rules.

John Koopman: If you’re topless, you cannot come within six feet of any other human being, including another stripper. And if you’re in like a champagne room or something like that, you can’t be taking off your clothes.

Ray Suarez: And rules for customers.

John Koopman: Again, there’s laws about this. You can’t touch a dancer in any of the private parts. And if you do, you’re going to be told not to. And if you don’t listen, you’re going to be kicked out. There were just some people who were bad people.

Ray Suarez: The job hardened John. One night, he had to rescue a stripper who had OD’d.

John Koopman: After trying to rouse her for a bit, I picked her up in my arms like a baby and took her to the dressing room. And I laid her down, and we kept trying to rouse her, and I could hear the sirens coming from down the street from there. So I picked her up again and I walked through the club, and she’s wearing her just her stripper outfit, take her out to the front area, and all of a sudden the paramedics are there, and they grab her and they start looking at her and they start doing CPR.

Ray Suarez: The woman survived, but never returned to the club. John became physically and emotionally exhausted. After two years, he quit the club and started driving for Uber.

Archival audio: These days, everyone needs a side hustle. And driving with Uber lets you go from earning, to working, to chilling at the push of a button.

Ray Suarez: Once again, John witnessed the best and worst of humanity. He wrote about his humiliating encounters with customers in an article titled “Zen and the Art of Uber Driving.” One day, he picked up a passenger and realized it was a lawyer he’d once interviewed for his paper. She recognized him. He says he felt like a nobody, but, over time, he became philosophical.

John Koopman: I think that, with time, our job as human beings is to figure out our psyches, our souls. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but just in the sense of asking yourself those questions: Who are you? What do you believe? What do you think? How do you see the world? How do you interact with people?

Ray Suarez: John kept driving for a few years. He earned enough to survive in San Francisco, but only because he had a rent-controlled apartment. He was now well into middle age with an uncertain future. In 2016, he made a decision that changed his life. He moved back to Nebraska to spend time with his dying mother.

John Koopman: She lived about an hour away. I’d drive there every week, every other week, and we’d have lunch, and I’d take her to Walmart, and get her some stuff, whatever. And we had a good time. And then, she passed. And then when she passed, as hard as that was, at least I didn’t feel like a bad son. I felt like I had done something to make up for the many decades I had been away.

Ray Suarez: Again, John was representative of a stark 21st-century trend: middle-class adults from working-class backgrounds, going back to where they came from when they fell on hard times. John’s best friend from childhood, also moved home. He opened a bar in Omaha, and asked John to work for him.

John Koopman: Boy, talk about micro-dosing your adrenaline. Bartend at a dive bar in Omaha—you get a lot of interesting things going on there.

Ray Suarez: Tending bar suited John. It had the same weird rush as the strip club. He was in the action again, yet it didn’t feel like a war in a bad way, the way gig work did. He liked it a lot more than driving Uber.

John Koopman: I guess the metaphor I would use is, um, I need to get to the other side of the pond, and I’m kind of hopping from lily pad to stone. And I’m hitting them okay, my feet are landing, but you always know that with the next leap, you might miss it, and you might go right down into the water.

Ray Suarez: Life is a lot cheaper in Nebraska. And John started researching what benefits he was owed as a veteran. Remember, how he said the smartest thing he ever did was join the military? The decision he made when he was just 17 secured him a college education. And, now, he’s eligible for health care through the VA.

Archival audio: That’s your benefit, that’s what you’ve earned. Take advantage of it.

Ray Suarez: Not only that, his status as a vet allowed him to secure a mortgage with no down payment to buy a house in Omaha.

Archival audio: Explore the many ways VA benefits can help you purchase a home, earn a degree, advance your career, and so much more.

Ray Suarez: John feels pretty lucky these days. He may have been the Zelig of the American struggle, but it hasn’t killed his spirit.

John Koopman: In my mind, almost everything I’ve done since leaving the paper was about… I look at it like the exploration of the human soul. You find that wherever you find that.

Ray Suarez: John Koopman is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of McCoy’s Marines: Darkside to Baghdad. You can read his story about driving for Uber at economichardship.org.

One of the most interesting parts of John Koopman’s story for me is how, in retrospect, he realizes how valuable his veteran’s benefits have been to him, and how pivotal it’s been in making his adult life. It helped propel him into his career when he was young. And, when he was older, VA health care and a VA home loan helped cushion him from a precarious situation later in life, when he was experiencing economic hardship. Joining me now is Aaron Jackson, a PhD candidate in the history of health sciences at UC San Francisco. Aaron’s a combat vet writing his dissertation on the history of veterans’ health care.

Welcome to the program.

Aaron Jackson: It’s a pleasure to be here, Ray. Thank you for having me.

Ray Suarez: What does John Koopman’s experience, in all its various parts, tell us about the role of the VA in shoring up the lives of American veterans?

Aaron Jackson: Well, for many veterans, the VA represents an extra rung on the socioeconomic ladder, right? It provides access to wide range of benefits that have been rightly credited with raising millions of American veterans out of the working class into the middle class, and securing their economic futures, and that of their family.

You just look at the veteran’s home loan, for example, that’s generational wealth that’s being created, and access to a no-down-payment home loan is huge. Then, you look at the educational benefits. Originally, the Montgomery GI bill provided access to college and vocational school. And then, it was extended with the post-9/11 GI bill, and then the Forever GI bill. And then, finally, you look at health care and cemetery benefits. I mean, these are not insignificant financial benefits to qualifying veterans.

Ray Suarez: My father was a Navy man in the ’50s, he’s in his 80s now, and getting pretty good care from the Veterans Administration. From the outside, not as a veteran myself, it looks like a pretty robust safety net. Are there catches? Is it easy to use?

Aaron Jackson: Well, it’s absolutely a robust safety net, and it’s the nation’s largest and, by pretty much any measure, one of the most successful health care systems in the United States today, but there are catches. We have 20 million, roughly, veterans in the United States living today, only 9 million are enrolled in VHA health care. And, of those 9 million, roughly about 5 million a year utilize the care. So, there’s a question in utilization, in access. Access is the big part.

Ray Suarez: That gap between the number eligible, and the number using the benefits, can that be chalked up to the fact that a lot of middle-age, mid-career people are getting health insurance in some other way?

Aaron Jackson: It’s possible, but really that gap between the 20 million veterans and only 9 million enrolled has more to do with that question of qualification for the benefits. So, having a disability rating, having other than dishonorable discharge, that can be a difficulty faced by many veterans, considering the history of racism, bigotry, anti-LGBTQ discrimination that our nation’s gone through, these things have a way of trickling into the veteran’s benefits system.

Ray Suarez: So, what they call bad paper?

Aaron Jackson: Exactly.

Ray Suarez: You left the military under less than ideal circumstances.

Aaron Jackson: Exactly. Bad paper is one of the biggest concerns.

Ray Suarez: Historians who’ve looked at America after the Second World War have credited benefits coming from military service with building the largest and most affluent middle class in the history of planet Earth. But they also found problems. Veterans housing benefits, for instance, had a terrifically potent racial component because there were many places that Black GIs, coming out of the service, simply could not buy homes. Or, in the places they could buy homes, they found their veterans’ mortgage benefits were only usable if they wanted to buy new housing, and no new housing was being built for them. Do racial components of the way benefits are awarded and used linger to this day?

Aaron Jackson: Oh, they absolutely do linger to this day. I mean, you just look at the economic ripple effect of many of those veterans’ not being able to utilize their VA home loan benefits. That’s exactly right. It’s not necessarily the VA’s fault that these benefits weren’t able to be utilized—though, admittedly, the 1944 GI bill was specifically written to allow states to administer the benefits in ways that would reinforce segregation.

Education’s the same way. If a veteran is entitled to education or vocational training, but can’t get into this school because of segregationist policies, or discriminatory policies, that’s a problem as well. Regarding health care, we see this with health care disparities, and health outcome disparities. The VA, today, recognizes that these disparities exist. They just have to look in the data and they see things like the fact that Hispanic and Latino veterans are almost twice as likely to have diabetes than their white counterparts, and Black veterans’ health outcomes and Indigenous veterans’ health outcomes are far worse than their white counterparts’.

Ray Suarez: A lot of people over the years have credited the military and the Veterans Administration with being on the forefront of change, for helping push America into a new era of civil rights. When these problems have been found of access, of applicability, has the VA, over time, adjusted? Does a minority-group veteran today have a different landscape stretching out from his or her feet than the veteran in 1946?

Aaron Jackson: Oh, absolutely. The landscape is different than [it was for] the veteran in 1946, no doubt. You’re right, the VA and the military have been credited with being on the forefront of integration efforts. So, for example, the military was ordered by executive order to integrate in 1948, and the VA followed suit. By 1954, all of their facilities were integrated. But that right there shows that these things take time. There’s a six-year gap between those two functions. And if you look at it closer, it’s much more than just, oh, Truman signed an executive order integrating the military. Well, it took a lot longer to make sure that the military was actually integrated, and even then, a lot of the issues still persisted.

Ray Suarez: Well, Aaron, as I mentioned, we’re not only lucky to have you because this is your area of scholarly inquiry, but you are also a customer. You served in Afghanistan. What’s your experience with the VA been like?

Aaron Jackson: Well, my experience with the VA is probably not entirely typical. I got out of the Army in 2006 and didn’t register for VA benefits until 2019. Didn’t receive my disability rating until 2020. I was a paratrooper, so my knees are shot. I’m an inch and a quarter shorter than I was when I enlisted. I’ve got a bad shoulder. My ears ring all the time. And, of course, I was dealing with chronic PTSD. But I was getting by. I was making it work. So I figured I didn’t need the benefits as much as somebody else did. And that kind of a cultural problem is one of the big issues that prevents VA benefit utilization.

Since I’ve received my disability rating, my experience with the VA, especially the veterans’ centers, has been incredible. It’s been fantastic. In fact, I credit it with saving my life. We have a real problem with veterans’ suicide these days. And that’s another issue that the VA is desperately trying to address, and pouring a lot of resources at it. And that’s a good thing, but the fact that they haven’t been able to address that has demonstrated that these problems, many of them, are larger than the VA itself. And it’s going to take looking at cultures like the one with the military, where we come into it going, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I’m just going to drive on, rub some dirt on it, take some Motrin, push through.”

My advice for other vets is utilize the benefits, and be patient with the system. There are veterans’ service organizations. There are volunteers that know this system inside and out that can help you navigate the system, and you just have to stay patient, and keep trying, and make sure that you’re getting the benefits that you have earned because they are a big boost to you, to your families, and loved ones to ensure that you’re being taken care of.

Ray Suarez: Aaron Jackson is a PhD candidate in the history of health sciences at the University of California–San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.

Aaron Jackson: Of course, Ray, thank you for having me.

Ray Suarez: Going for Broke comes to you from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and The Nation. Our producer is Jeb Sharp; mixing and sound design by Tina Tobey Mack. Our executive producers are Alissa Quart and David Wallace. Frank Reynolds is multimedia editor at The Nation. The Nation’s editor is D.D. Guttenplan.

I’m Ray Suarez. Thanks for listening. Please tell your friends about us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, or visit thenation.com/podcasts to learn more. Sign up for EHRP’s newsletter at economichardship.org.