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Bemoaning veterans’ benefits tawdry

Myriam Marquez Orlando Sentinel

Weapons America needs to defend itself in the future will have to be slashed. Incentives for young people to join the volunteer military are in jeopardy even as U.S. forces are being strained in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And it’s all the fault of military veterans and even their widows.

That’s what David Chu, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, says about increases in veterans benefits that Congress approved since 1999.

“The amounts have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself,” Chu told the Wall Street Journal recently.

Chu’s remarks became the Pentagon’s shot heard around the blogosphere. Vets aren’t going down without a fight.

The Pentagon estimates increases in benefits, some approved by Congress during the Clinton administration, will cost $100 billion more in the next six years. But whose fault is that?

Those benefits were promised long ago. Then the government tried to wiggle out of its obligation. After veterans groups, a powerful voting bloc, forced the issue, both Republicans and Democrats came to the rescue – despite the Bush administration’s attempts to nickel-and-dime vets.

You don’t take on the Greatest Generation without paying a political price. But President Bush, having won a second term to office with strong support from veterans, has nothing to lose. Forget veterans benefits – Bush’s priority remains tax cuts. He wants tax cuts that disproportionately help the richest Americans, reasoning they will create more jobs and strengthen the economy.

Except too many of those jobs are going to India, China and so forth. Not just grunt work, but technical jobs, too, that pay well.

Thomas H. Corey, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, fired his own volley back at the Bush administration after it released the latest veterans budget proposal, which would require that certain veterans pay more for their health care. “The president is mistaken if he believes that 58 percent of veterans voted for the Bush-Cheney ticket last year to give his administration a mandate to cut funds for veterans,” Corey said. “If he believes that veterans voted to restrict access to health care, he needs to reassess his position.”

Hey, tell that to the Swift Boat boys who sought to besmirch Sen. John Kerry’s military service during the presidential campaign.

Several veterans groups, including the Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have put together their own budget proposal. They figure the Department of Veterans Affairs needs $31.2 billion for medical care. The administration is proposing $27.8 billion – a less than one-half percent increase. Adjusted for inflation, Bush’s plan amounts to a cut.

Bush wants to increase vets’ medical-insurance enrollment to $250 a year, raise prescription copayments and restrict certain care. This would drive 213,000 vets, many already on tight retirement budgets, away from the VA medical system, the veterans groups estimate. Long-term care would be gutted under the Bush plan, too, serving 27 percent fewer vets in 2006 than in 1998.

Pitting military retirees and vets against those who are serving today is a sideshow that hides the main event – the true reasons for the federal budget crunch. Exploding annual deficits have more to do with Bush’s penchant for over-the-top tax cuts than long-overdue benefits for those who risked their lives to defend this country during two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and all the other military operations to this day. Veterans’ benefits don’t deserve to be on the chopping block.

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