The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Zachary Hubbard

December 18, 2013

Zachary Hubbard | Throwing veterans under the bus

JOHNSTOWN — Americans love honoring their military veterans. They cheer loudly for troops returning home from combat zones in far away countries; they hold veterans’ parades and decorate veterans’ graves; and they walk up to veterans and thank them for their service. Unfortunately, most of the honors end there.

In reality, America’s veterans – active duty, discharged and retired – are little more than political pawns. The abuses they suffer at the hands of unscrupulous politicians, the vast majority of whom have never served, are unconscionable. These range in severity from minor to obscene, but the effects are all the same. In this age where the military is asked to do more and more, politicians increasingly dishonor veterans and create disincentives for voluntary military service.

The examples are plentiful.  Take the recent federal government shutdown for instance. Does anyone outside the Obama administration truly believe it was necessary for federal police to erect barriers to prevent veterans from visiting the Vietnam and World War II memorials during the shutdown?

Then there is the recent bipartisan budget deal (H.J. Resolution 59) that breezed through a vote in the House of Representatives on Dec. 12 and, as of this writing, is expected to be approved by the Senate. The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) both denounced the bill.

Why? Because it contains provisions cutting the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) for military retirees’ pensions by 1 percent a year until age 62. The cuts, which are not grandfathered, would include both current and future military retirees.

According to MOAA estimates, a senior, noncommissioned officer would lose more than $80,000 over the life of his or her pension. A mid-level officer would lose well over $100,000. Not a good incentive for keeping the ranks of an all-volunteer force filled.

For years, large grocery chains like Wal-Mart have lobbied to close military commissaries. Commissaries are big grocery stores on military bases. Open to active duty, reserve and retired military personnel, they offer shoppers up to 30 percent savings compared to off-base prices. Overworked and underpaid military personnel consider commissaries an important benefit.

Unfortunately, the Defense Commissary Agency, which operates 178 commissaries in the United States and 70 overseas, is drafting plans seeking congressional approval to close the stateside stores. About $850 million in appropriated funds is required annually to run these stores – small change in the overall defense budget. Commissary patrons help defer operating costs by paying a

5 percent surcharge.

The rigors of military service cause an inordinate amount of health problems for veterans. Many of these continue to plague them after they leave the service. Health care for active-duty military and retirees is funded through the TRICARE system. While TRICARE premiums cost less than conventional medical insurance premiums, the cost is increasing.

Congress passed the last cost hike in 2011. In the Obama administration’s recent 2014 budget proposal, TRICARE premiums will increase as much as 80 percent in some instances.

Increasingly asking those who have served to shoulder the burden of reducing government spending is always unacceptable. Asking this when the country has been in a state of perpetual war for over a decade is depraved.   And it appears there is no end to perpetual warfare, despite President Obama’s campaign promises.

According to a Nov. 19 web article on NBCnews.com, “… a draft of a key U.S.-Afghan security deal obtained by NBC News shows the United States is prepared to maintain military outposts in Afghanistan for many years to come, and pay to support hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces. The wide-ranging document, currently unsigned by the United States and Afghanistan, has the potential to commit thousands of American troops to Afghanistan and spend billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”  

According to the article, some U.S. military forces could remain in Afghanistan for another decade. This is insane.

Members of Congress should be required to visit a military medical center to see the young men and women who volunteered to serve and now suffer for that service. Missing limbs, blindness, disfiguring wounds, traumatic brain injuries and the debilitating effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are their rewards. PTSD has led to an epidemic of suicides by military veterans today.

Someone please remind the politicians that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been underfunded for over a decade. According to a recent statement by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the VA currently has a backlog of over 350,000 unprocessed disability claims.

A VA employee recently confided to me that her office has a large room filled wall-to-wall with desks, each piled deep with paper copies of military medical records belonging to veterans. The paper records must be scanned and converted into electronic files before the veterans’ disability claims can be processed.

Processing the claims is no cakewalk either. According to the VA’s own website, the department has a 97 percent accuracy rate in processing disability claims. However, analysis by the VFW puts it at closer to 55 percent and the National Veterans Legal Service rates it a dismal 30 to 40 percent.  Mistakes in processing claims frequently result in veterans being denied critical treatment for service-related medical conditions.

I could continue, but length limits constrain me. For those who truly want to honor veterans, the best way to do so is by contacting their elected officials and encouraging them to support legislation to maintain veteran’s benefits.

A recent L.A. Times article about the problem-plagued F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft cited Government Accountability Office estimates indicating that, if fully funded, the cost to American taxpayers for the F-35 program would amount to about “$1.4 million an hour for the next two and a half decades.”   The per-plane cost today is about $160 million, nearly twice the original estimate.

Do Americans really value a defense industry that builds these aircraft and other expensive weapons systems more than they value the nation’s veterans?

Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

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