Congress recently voted to send $87 billion to Iraq, money that will be used to build everything from roads to power plants to hospitals. Yet while Congress appears ready to rubber-stamp unlimited monies for nation building in Iraq, thousands of our own soldiers at home are languishing with substandard medical care.
You may have read about conditions at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where hundreds of injured reserve and National Guard soldiers are housed in deplorable conditions and forced to wait months just to see a doctor. These soldiers made huge sacrifices, leaving their families and jobs to fight in Iraq. Now they find themselves living in hot, crowded, unsanitary barracks and waiting far too long to see overworked doctors. This is hardly the heroes’ welcome they might have expected. Only an exposé in a major newspaper brought attention to their plight, prompting an embarrassed Defense department to rush additional doctors to the base.
Many of these men and women expressed shock at their treatment. They assumed wounded soldiers returning from Iraq would receive priority treatment, given the "support the troops" rhetoric coming from Washington. Their complaints went ignored, however, until the media became involved.
Similar mistreatment of soldiers has been evident throughout our occupation of Iraq. Some wounded soldiers convalescing at Walter Reed hospital in Washington were forced to pay for hospital meals from their own pockets! Other soldiers returning stateside for a two-week liberty had to buy their own airfare home from the east coast. Still others have paid for desert boots, night vision goggles, and other military necessities with personal funds. It’s shocking that our troops are forced to pay for basic items that should be supplied to them or paid from the defense budget.
Perhaps the most shameful mistreatment of our veterans is in the area of concurrent receipt benefits. Existing federal rules force disabled veterans to give up their military retirement pay in order to receive VA disability benefits. This means every VA disability dollar paid to a veteran is deducted from his retirement pay, effectively creating a "disabled veterans tax." No other group of federal employees is subject to this unfair standard; in every other case disability pay is viewed as distinct from standard retirement pay.
For years veterans have fought for concurrent receipt benefits to no avail. Last week Congress finally passed a very limited concurrent receipt law, but the change is unlikely to satisfy those disabled veterans who need benefits the most. Under the new partial concurrent receipt bill, only those veterans in essence deemed "disabled enough" will qualify; this means roughly two-thirds of disabled veterans will not receive concurrent receipt benefits at all. Even severely disabled veterans who do qualify may never enjoy their long-sought relief, because the bill passed by Congress takes ten years to phase in. How sad that some disabled soldiers will die in the next decade without seeing a penny of their concurrent receipt benefits.
Members of our armed forces deserve more than platitudes when they return from foreign wars with illnesses or disabilities. Unfortunately, the trust our soldiers place in the federal government to provide for their health care has been breached time and time again. Last week’s partial grant of concurrent receipt benefits will prove woefully inadequate for most of our disabled veterans, veterans who could be well-served with just a fraction of the billions Congress gave away in Iraq.