Veterans now need our protection
John Brieden, American Legion National Commander
WASHINGTON – We all know that Nov. 11 is Veterans Day. We know that Veterans Day pays tribute to men and women who sacrificed for freedom in the U.S. armed forces. We know that democracy flourishes the world over because of the sacrifice of America's veterans. We know that Veterans Day originates from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when World War I ended.
Our nation praises its veterans with a holiday, with the construction of moving memorials, and with a solemn final tribute: placement upon their coffins of a U.S. Flag. Our state and federal governments set aside pristine expanses of hallowed ground in which America's veterans rest in eternal peace. Yet, as pro-veteran as the United States of America is, there are aspects of the relationship between our grateful nation and its veterans that most Americans probably do not know.
Did you know that, pending the enactment of key legislation, military retirees who suffer from disabilities related to their military service are taxed a dollar of their retired pay for every dollar they receive in disability compensation? If their disability compensation exceeds their retired pay, then they must forfeit their retired pay in order to collect disability. Yet retirees from federal civilian service who have disabilities stemming from military service are not taxed in this manner.
Did you know that since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, signaling America's victory in the Cold War, the U.S. armed forces have experienced a one-third cut in the active-duty force and a 300 percent increase in deployments? The growing mismatch between deployments and the total force has resulted in the repeated long-term deployment of National Guard units, precluding them from performing homeland-security duties and other functions for which the nation's governors might need them. Cracks in Reserve retention show the wear and tear on over-deployed Reservists, most of whom lose money during activation because their civilian jobs pay substantially more than Uncle Sam, and most corporations do not pay the difference, which would stabilize the citizen-soldiers' take-home pay during many months of activation.
Did you know that on a given night, about a quarter-million veterans are homeless: lacking both permanent shelter and hope? One-third of adult homeless men and nearly one-quarter of all homeless adults are veterans. Clearly, programs must be strengthened that provide medical, rehabilitative and employment assistance to those who served.
Did you know that an estimated 164,000 veterans in the lowest of the Department of Veterans Affairs' eight priority treatment groups have been suspended from enrolling for health care at VA since January 17? Did you know that before VA simply stopped veterans from entering the system, within which they are entitled by law to seek treatment, there were more than 200,000 veterans waiting from six months to two years to receive an initial primary-care appointment at VA? The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and other veterans service organizations are still fighting for a law that would fund VA health care on a mandatory rather than a discretionary basis, just like Social Security and Medicare, so that the funding rises with the increased demand for treatment. The war on terror will only make this situation worse, as U.S. forces in Iraq average 40 wounded troops per week, and a rising number of recently medically retired troops seek treatment at VA.
Did you know that as the war on terror and other military commitments to vital U.S. interests create a new generation of potential users of the VA system, more VA hospitals are cited to be closed than to be built? The American Legion is participating in VA's realignment process to ensure that services are not curtailed where they are sorely needed.
Did you know that, until last month, when wounded troops departed military hospitals, they received a bill for their meals — $8.10 a day? That was a lot of money to the more junior personnel who had been hospitalized for weeks or months, not to mention a ridiculous price to pay by someone who already paid a price for his or her country. Thank goodness Congress got around to legislation aimed at correcting that problem. But short-term relief from hospital-food billing for our wounded troops still must be made permanent.
Did you know that thousands of Guard and Reserve personnel are counting on the enactment of legislation that will provide them health insurance to replace the employer-paid coverage that their families lost when they were called up for months — in many cases for more than a year — to fight the war on terror? Contrary to traditional public perception, Guard and Reserve personnel are not "weekend warriors." They are an integral part of the total force, activated for months, even years, nearly every time they are called up. If they can answer their nation's call as active-duty troops do, then they should have access to the active-duty force's health care program, known as Tricare.
What does all of this mean? It means the time has come to introduce a new Veterans Day tradition to the existing one.
Be a part of the Veterans Day commemorative events in your area. Take your children, if possible. Your presence says "thank you for your service" to veterans and to their families. These events are a part of our nation's existing annual holiday tradition.
Further, if you appreciate the sacrifices of those who stood, and those who still stand, in harm's way, then please consider starting another holiday tradition. This new tradition boils down to two simple civic duties: Save this column until next year's election campaign. Insist the candidates address, indeed embrace, the policies that you know in your heart are right and just.
Veterans number 25 million, not even a tenth of the U.S. population.
Nevertheless, we are reminded daily, particularly by the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, that veterans comprise a brave and selfless fraction that has helped to deter and to avenge tyranny. Veterans have fought for you and for all — have been willing to die for you and for all — to advance the cause of liberty.
We know that freedom isn't free. We know in our hearts that the selfless sacrifice that liberates the oppressed and protects our shores deserves to be justly compensated. We know that our nation owes its veterans a square deal, and that this is a cause worthy of the passion and energy of a grateful and free people, not only on Veterans Day but every day.
John Brieden is national commander of the 2.8-million member American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization.