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Making the troops pay twice
by Dan Carpenter
Indystar.com
November 9, 2003

If you notice there are more veterans to honor this Veterans Day than there were last year, thank the Bush administration and the Republican Congress.

If you want more help for those veterans, better ask the Democrats.

They're fighting President Bush, the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the GOP congressional leadership just to keep a shamefully inadequate veterans support system from getting worse.

When Democrats tried to insert health insurance and other personnel benefits into the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House shot them down.

When Democrats tried to replace $1.3 billion of the $1.8 billion shortfall in the pending VA health care budget bill, the White House threatened a veto.

On and on it goes. Waits of six months to two years for some seekers of health care, even as the VA moves to close down facilities. Multiple hikes in drug co-pays. Exclusion of more than 160,000 "low-priority" vets from the health care system because the money's not there to cover them. Non-mandatory funding, meaning the budget must be fought for anew every year by those who care.

"The general public has no clue as to the shortfall in the veterans' system nor the impact of an additional 130,000 people (eventually returning from Iraq) on that system," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "If the American public fully understood how we are treating our veterans, they'd be outraged."

Except for military families, such as those belonging to the 1,600 surviving wounded in the current war, the public generally doesn't know. The news teleconference Murray held with several colleagues Tuesday didn't make the wires, and rarely is there news, in the land of Fox and football, of the sacrifice that continues when Johnny and Jane come marching home.

"We've been very frustrated that we can't penetrate the curtain that Bush has pulled down over the country to justify this war," says Joseph Farah, Indiana president of the antiwar group Veterans for Peace. "There are long-term implications that nobody's thought out yet, and we should have thought them out before we committed troops to battle."

In addition to the time of day, this is an area where Farah is in agreement with the American Legion. In congressional testimony recently, Legion National Commander John Brieden politely but pointedly drew a comparison between the figures $87 billion and $1.8 billion, and said:

"If the ever-present courage of our men and women in the armed forces exists also in Congress and in the White House, then our nation will do the right thing for America's veterans."

The courage seems to exist not among the politicians who beat the drums for war but among those who dared ask what we were getting into.

"It takes more than the bravado of 'bring it on,' " Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont liberal Democrat, said at the press conference. "Unfortunately, they did bring it on."

Now, a wide-open spigot of American tax dollars is paying Iraqi soldiers and American defense entrepreneurs while American soldiers who escape the mess find themselves to be a trimmable budget item.

"I'm deeply concerned," Sen. Murray said, "that the wrong message is being sent to the next generation that will be asked to serve our country."

Over the cheers, speeches and flyovers on Tuesday, nobody will hear that message anyway.

Carpenter is Star op-ed columnist. Contact him at 1-317-444-6172 or via e-mail at: dan.carpenter@indystar.com

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