While the highly-publicized war in Iraq and the campaign against terrorism are creating an entirely new generation of combat veterans, older veterans are fighting a bitter, behind-the-scenes war of their own - against the Bush administration's cutbacks in their medical benefits.
It is a truly distressing thing to witness.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has shown the audacity to suggest that older veterans of the nation's past wars make sacrifices for the nation in the war against terrorism.
If I wasn't familiar with Rumsfeld's record of arrogance and ongoing conflicts with senior uniformed military leaders, I might question the veracity of the reports. But they are true. This reflects what I believe is a disturbing trend in the federal government: With fewer and fewer cabinet-level appointees and members of Congress possessing military experience, and as high-ranking business leaders take over governmental leadership positions, there is an increasing trend toward cutting costs and reducing benefits without regard to the impact on those affected.
In the case of veterans, many who are now elderly or still suffering from grievous wounds received in combat, it is truly unbelievable that anyone in the federal government would dare suggest that veterans (many without adequate medical and drug coverage) should be again asked to make additional sacrifices for a truly ungrateful nation.
After the combat operations in Iraq finally end, let there be no doubt that the American taxpayer will again be the source of international largesse as we pour billions into the reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure. American companies will no doubt take a lead role in rebuilding highways, bridges, hospitals, schools and perhaps even mosques that were destroyed or damaged during the war.
And yet, the same government providing the funds to do so, and enrich the likes of Dick Cheney's business cronies, is asking men and women who have given their utmost for the United States to accept less care from the Veteran's Administration. Â The VA has long been notorious for forcing veterans to endure long waits for medical appointments, service cutbacks, incredible increases in bureaucracy and the incompetence of its employees. Instead of trying to fix these problems and deliver the best possible care to our veterans, the government wants to cut services.
We are a country where illegal immigrants can get free medical care and citizenship for their newborns, while American retirees who paid taxes all their lives, see their benefits being reduced. What does it say of us as a nation that we pander to the "sensitivities" of non-citizens, while telling men who lost arms and legs on Omaha Beach and in the Pacific jungles that since their files were lost, they can no longer receive care at VA facilities without reapplying for benefits.
The United States possesses some of the most advanced medical facilities in the world, but we have military doctors who don't treat patients because they have all been transferred into Tri-Care, where the payments and reimbursements to civilian doctors are so low that these same doctors are turning military patients and their dependents away. We'll propose to send billions to Africa to treat AIDS while denying our own veterans medical care.
Yet the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who draft the legislation and the career bureaucrats who administer VA programs, clearly don't worry about these things, because they have their own different medical plans that are fully funded by the government they run and the taxpayers who foot the bill.
The United States is a country that can squander billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars on gold-plated weapons systems while telling a former Air Force combat controller named Patrick Hall that he'll need to have four vertebrae operated on because the quacks at Womack Army Hospital at Ft. Bragg, N.C., didn't treat a parachute accident injury properly back in 1986.
So what will happen to the new vets who emerge from the latest conflict in which the United States finds itself? When the news media coverage fades and the wounded are medically discharged unable to work or cannot afford medical care, who will look after them? Will it be the same secretary of defense who decided we didn't need that many forces to take Iraq and who has suggested that an additional 90,000 people be cut from the active duty rosters of our armed services? I hope not!
The same Patrick Hall who needs back surgery for his old injury, wrote to DefenseWatch with a poignant story of an event he recently witnessed at a VA Hospital in Charleston, S.C.
While waiting for a long-scheduled medical appointment, Hall watched as an elderly veteran of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach sobbed uncontrollably while his wife vainly tried to console him. Hall inquired as to why the old gentlemen was crying and was informed that the very same VA hospital that had been treating him for years for war-related injuries would no longer do so because they had lost his service records.
The hospital administrators then callously informed the World War II veteran that he would have to apply again for treatment by the same VA that had been treating him for years. This was an unconscionable act because it put a severe burden of proof on the elderly veteran to track down and obtain many decades-old documents from the Army and VA bureaucracies.
For Rumsfeld or any other senior official to suggest that our veterans do more with less is the height of callous indifference. It once again proves to this veteran that the defense secretary is out of touch with the needs of the nation and the men and women who served in the past, are currently serving and who will serve in the future.
Before anyone in government suggests that we short-change our national heroes, before we fund every politician's pet projects or reward constituencies for their votes, we should never forget the men and women who have guaranteed our freedoms and current way of life. To turn our backs on them, to suggest that they again "sacrifice" to help pay for the war on terrorists and Operation Iraqi Freedom is despicable and immoral.
If Rumsfeld feels that sacrifices should be made, perhaps he should forego his salary as the secretary of defense, give up the Gulfstream IV jet he flies around in, the chauffeur who drives him to appointments, and the other perks he enjoys as a Cabinet member.
Before any elected official asks our veterans to make additional sacrifices on behalf of this ungrateful nation, let them first look in the mirror and ask themselves what they personally have done to make this nation safer and more secure. I'd be willing to bet my next paycheck that it pales in comparison to those made by the elderly veterans who faced Nazi machine-gunners in Normandy or the Japanese in the Pacific, or fought against the North Koreans and Chinese in 1950, the Viet Cong and NVA regulars during Tet in 1968, or the Iraqi Republican Guard in 1991 and 2003. Before we ever ask these veterans to sacrifice again, we should all stop and consider what we wouldn't have without them.
It is not the journalist or the politician who protects our freedoms. It is the soldier, the Marine, the airman, the sailor and the Coast Guardsman who do that on our behalf.
They made, continue to make and will continue to make sacrifices so that the rest of us can live as we choose. The next time a member of this administration or any of those that follow is tempted to curtail veterans' benefits or medical care, it is imperative that we remind them that veterans have already sacrificed for their country. They should not have to do so ever again.
Paul Connors is a Senior Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2003 Paul Connors.
Rumsfeld's War against Elderly
By Paul Connors
Posted on the Independent Newswire on 28 April 2003.