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<< 1. Living with Lies3. From the National Office >>

George W. Bush Reaches a New Low in Support of the Nation's Veterans

By Dave Curry, Joe Miller and Barry Romo

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George Bush is not a veteran, and he is not concerned about our needs. When he's not pretending to be a jet pilot, Bush pretends to be just another veteran. At the American Legion National Convention, before he began his speech, Bush called attention to a veteran from "his old legion post." The message was a reach for solidarity. "We're all vets here."

In the speech that followed, Bush laid claim to "the largest discretionary increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs ever requested by a president." Bush also claimed that under his leadership the VA has made "major progress in reducing the backlog of veterans' disability claims and the number of veterans waiting for health care. And (we will) continue to work to make sure those backlogs are eliminated."

Maybe this is an outright lie or maybe reducing "backlogs" and "lists" is simply a matter of reducing benefits, facilities, and eligibility. No benefits, no facilities, no eligibility, therefore no lists, no backlogs. And of course there must be administrative costs associated with all this streamlining.

Under current leadership, the administration intends to drop more than half a million veterans from medical eligibility by 2005. At the same time, House Republicans have passed a White House proposal to charge veterans enrollment fees of $250 a year and double the amount they now pay for prescription drugs. This is at a time when it already takes an average of six months to get an appointment at a VA medical center.

VA secretary Anthony Principi has said: "This is not about closing hospitals. This is about transforming the VA health care system into a patient-focused health care system that adapts to medicine in the 21st century. ... Sometimes, leaders have to make difficult decisions."

The mechanism for reducing veterans' benefits and services has an ironic name: Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services, or CARES. Under the CARES plan, an unspecified number of VA hospitals will be closed or transformed into outpatient clinics. The VA plans to provide the specific list of hospitals for closing in December 2003.

According to the New York Daily News, closing one hospital in Manhattan will deny access to VA medical care for thousands of veterans with no other options. The VA is not the only federal agency wielding the budget ax on veterans' health benefits. Earlier this year, Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Roswell released a list of 18 VA hospitals to be converted from 24-hour medical facilities to 8-hour-a-day outpatient clinics.

A meeting of representatives of traditional veterans' organizations at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars concluded that "the praise for troops by the president, other top administration officials and Republican congressional leaders is 'ringing hollow' because they have broken promises to veterans and active-duty soldiers about benefits and services." The Army Times has labeled Bush administration praise and promises for veterans and active duty troops "nothing but lip service." "We strongly believe that Congress and the administration have to do better by veterans," said Dennis M. Cullinan, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Republicans have proposed new legislation that will limit what constitutes a service-connected health problem. Representative Lane Evans of Illinois, the ranking democrat on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, has pointed out that the new legislation would have denied benefits to the atomic veterans and the victims of Agent Orange. In reaction to the proposed legislation, the Disabled American Veterans in a press release have accused Congress of "declaring war against disabled veterans" and showing "callous contempt for the sacrifices of America's defenders."

The American Gulf War Veterans Association doesn't want the public to lose sight of the fact that nearly half of the 697,000 Gulf War I veterans are now ill. While over 200,000 of those serving in the first Gulf War have requested disability for "mysterious illnesses," they have received no adequate diagnosis or treatment from either the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). For the Association, "repeated lack of diagnosis unfortunately translates into lack of treatment, and lack of compensation for the veteran."

Treatment of veterans of the current Gulf War has bordered on the macabre. Warnings from military experts about the dangers to health of depleted uranium armor-piercing ordnance are getting attention in the press but not at the VA or DOD. There is no shortage of new mysterious illnesses similar to those found among Gulf War I vets turning up among those who are serving in Gulf War II. Several cases have figured prominently in the media. Army Sgt. Vanessa Turner barely escaped death from a "mysterious" ailment only to have to fight for medical treatment from the VA. "It's easier to stay a soldier and be in harm's way than to come home and get care," said Turner, a six-year army veteran. In September, she was still waiting for an appointment to see a doctor at a Boston VA hospital in mid-October. According to his parents, Josh Neusche became ill with a mystery illness on 6/26/03, entered a coma on 7/01/03, and was "medically retired" from the Army that day. The retirement classification allowed the DOD to deny any obligation for assisting his family to see him before he died on 7/12/03.

Through their foreign policy, the Bush administration has made all of these new veterans. Will they treat these new veterans with the same disdain they have demonstrated toward the rest of us veterans since taking office? How can we expect anything else?

Dave Curry was an Army captain in counterintelligence in Vietnam. Joe Miller was an enlisted man with the Naval Security Group just prior to the Tonkin Gulf incident. Barry Romo was an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam. All are members of VVAW's National Office.

<< 1. Living with Lies3. From the National Office >>