by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 30, 2008
GIVING OUR VETS WHAT THEY TRULY DESERVE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Memorial Day speeches are over. The flags and wreaths have been placed on the graves. And the soldiers who have given so much of themselves and gotten so little in return again recede from the nation's consciousness.
And it seems like our leaders want that way. The "troops" that we are supposed to "support" get reduced to mere props to be trotted out during patriotic occasions or a political event, and get shoved off stage as soon as their usefulness has ended.
What does it really mean to "support the troops?"
The Associated Press recently reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs expects to be spending at least $59 billion a year in 25 years to take care of disabled veterans.
Twenty five years from now, nearly all of the veterans of World War II and Korea will be gone. The veterans of the Vietnam War will be in their 80s. And the veterans of the Persian Gulf War and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be in their 50s and 60s.
By 2033, there will be about 15 million veterans needing care, significantly fewer than the 24 million currently alive. So even though there will be fewer veterans, the VA could be spending significantly more money to take care of them.
The VA says the number of disabled veterans has jumped 25 percent since 2001, to 2.9 million. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are most of the reason why. Battlefield medicine has improved so much that soldiers are surviving devastating wounds that would've killed them in previous wars.
So that means more soldiers coming back home alive from Iraq and Afghanistan, but severely burned or as multiple amputees. There are more soldiers coming back home with traumatic brain injuries. It is estimated that 1 in 5 soldiers - about 300,000 in all - suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. And we, as a nation, will be caring for these men and women for decades to come.
So what's being done? Funding for military and VA hospitals has been shortchanged for years under the Bush Administration, which means long waits for care. Returning veterans have to slog through a bureaucratic maze before receiving approval for their disability claim. They must wait alongside a backlog of about 400,000 of their fellow veterans. The average waiting time, according to government data compiled by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is about six months.
For the vets fortunate to come home unscathed, they need help making the transition back to civilian life -- help they are not getting from their government.
The GI Bill gave the vets of World War II and Korea a chance to go to college, get vocational training, buy homes and join the American middle class -- all on Uncle Sam's dime. Today's soldiers aren't getting that kind of deal. To get any college or vocational training benefits at all, they first have to put up $1,200. And if they don't go on to college, they forfeit that money. The matching money available for higher education is not enough in many cases to pay for the cost.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., proposed an expanded GI Bill for today's veterans. It would offer four fully funded years of college to anyone that has spent three years in the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Unbelievably, President Bush and Republican presidential nominee John McCain oppose this bill. They, and others that oppose it, believe it would hurt the military's efforts to retain its personnel.
Considering the disproportionate burden of military service that has fallen on rural and working class families, these politicians should be ashamed of themselves for being unwilling to give the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan the help they need.
We owe our newest veterans a whole lot more than what they are currently getting from their government. They deserve the same benefits their grandfathers got after World War II. They deserve a fully-funded VA system that delivers the medical care they need without red tape and excuses. They deserve every possible thing we can give them to improve their future prospects.
Only then can we say that we support our troops, and mean it.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.