Democratic Underground

Pentagon Says Veterans' Benefits "Hurtful" to National Security

January 28, 2005
By Joel Wendland

During a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal (1-25-05), Pentagon official David Chu, in a mockery of the contribution of veterans, defended a new round of cuts by ironically describing funding for programs like veterans' education and job training, health care, pensions, Veterans Administration (VA) housing and the like as "hurtful" to national security.

Despite Republican pretense that spending increases for the VA budget under the Bush administration have been large, new spending has neither matched inflation over the same period, nor does it keep pace with growing need.

For example, as private sector health care costs skyrocket, veterans are turning more and more to the military's health insurance program, Tricare. Retired service members account for half of the people covered by Tricare, whereas just five years ago they accounted for only 40 percent. The Bush administration wants to find ways to stem this tide - none of which have anything to do with keeping private sector insurance affordable.

The slow rate of VA spending growth enforced by Bush and the congressional Republicans over the last four years won't cover growing deferred benefits, such as education, housing, retirement, health care and so on, promised to current service members or that are supposed to be available for new enlistees.

Slow spending growth isn't even the biggest immediate problem for vets. In the last two years, Bush ordered the closing of several VA hospitals in different parts of the country, pushing waiting lists for medical services for veterans as high as six months for about 230,000 vets. These closings followed in the wake of the congressional Republican's concerted drive in 2003 to cut $15 billion from VA spending over the next ten years.

And, since his razor-thin victory over Senator Kerry and his claim of "political capital" to rule as he sees fit, President Bush, according to an Associated Press story about a leaked White House Budget Office memo, plans to slash veterans' health care benefits by over $900 million and veteran's housing programs by $50 million in 2005 alone.

A Center for American Progress analysis says, "President Bush's 2005 budget would increase prescription drug co-pays from $7 to $15 for many veterans. In 2002, the co-pay went from $2 to $7." This co-pay increase would have the biggest impact on "near-poor" veterans whose incomes are just high enough to require that they pay the new premium.

In fact the Republicans are so desperate to cut veterans' benefits they have started attacking fellow Republicans who want to preserve current benefit levels. The Wall Street Journal reports that "the House Republican leadership took the unusual step of stripping New Jersey Rep. Christopher Smith of his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee" for pushing "so aggressively for veterans benefits that he at times threatened to oppose their spending plans - and President Bush's - unless more retiree benefits were included."

The Wall Street Journal attributes the fact that the Republicans haven't been able to cut more from the VA budget to the work of large veterans' lobby groups such as the Military Officers Association of America and other veterans groups like American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America who have consistently blocked cuts and have pushed for expanded programs and spending. Veterans groups have called for expanded VA hospital usage, larger retiree, disability, and survivor benefits, equitable pay for service members and better access to health care and health insurance for retirees and survivors.

The Bush administration and Congressional Republicans lament the fact that increasing entitlements promised to veterans have forced them to limit the growth of spending for questionable missile systems and other weapons programs. New funding for their illegal war on Iraq, they claim, is also in jeopardy as long as so much new military spending is set aside for veterans' programs.

These "compassionate conservatives" want to force American taxpayers to choose between the GOP's vision of "national security" and taking care of the people who have provided that national security. While the Republicans would like to see tax dollars handed over to the big defense that fund their election campaigns contractors - their version of an "entitlement program" - they will also have to deal with the 28 million people who sacrificed their time and lives in the US military.

The Pentagon plans to reduce deferred benefit packages and increase one-time cash awards for new enlistees in the hopes of reducing, even eliminating, long-term benefit programs. In other words, recruiters will ask young people to sign up with enticements of several thousand-dollar payments and forget to tell them that they could have more for college. Further, one Pentagon official said that they'd like to change existing benefit plans to cause older service members to retire early and thus have smaller pensions and fewer benefits.

Meanwhile, Republicans are blocking an effort to eliminate premium payments for some retirees who receive Medicare. Also, the reliance on reservists in Bush's war on Iraq to participate in longer terms of active duty without adequate increases in pay is a de facto pay cut that affects thousands of service members who share equally the risks of military service.

The Republicans' effort to cut veterans' benefits is just another sign of their callous attitude to the vast majority of people in this country. They feel that the very rich are entitled to hundreds of billions in tax cuts, but do not feel the least twinge of guilt in forcing veterans to forego the benefits and services promised in return for their sacrifices.

This week Bush announced his request to Congress for another $80 billion, bringing the total spent on his war to $280 billion. Critics of the new spending request see it as more money being thrown at a criminal invasion of Iraq based on lies about WMD and terrorist ties that also is draining national resources from programs that help people for a military machine that kills and tortures.

Opponents of Bush's war know that it has undermined national security making Americans the target of terrorism more than ever before. But Bush wants you to believe that the real threats to national security are retired veterans who need food, shelter, and medical care.

Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at [email protected].

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