Washington's abandonment of veterans is abhorrent
Two weeks ago, the veteran community was dealt dual setbacks from the hands of the United States government. On Feb. 24, the first bit of dire news came in the form of the Pentagon's $495.6 billion budget proposal for 2015, delivered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which heralded an Army personnel reduction from the current 522,000 soldiers to a pre-WWII level of 450,000 by 2019. An additional 30,000 troops will need to be cut if the Pentagon continues to face budget restraints from Congress, and contained within this overarching budget proposal is a series of cuts to active-duty as well as veteran's benefits, including a steep Tricare fee hike.
A mere three days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who serves as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, watched with crushing disappointment as his veterans' assistance bill-which enjoyed unanimous endorsement from virtually every military assistance organization in the country-was rejected 56-41 because Senate Republicans had previously required a supermajority of 60 votes to pass. Both of these calamities only further demonstrate the callous treatment that veterans face from the government and they are made all the more inexcusable when compounded with recent revelations of Washington's grotesque misconduct.
The new Pentagon budget is undoubtedly a "breach of contract," as American Legion Deputy Director Joe Grassi described, which is marked by a mandated increase in out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare costs, an annual active duty pay raise cap of one percent, and the consolidation of Tricare's trio of available options into what will inevitably be some singular bureaucratic abomination. Amy Bushatz of Military News points out that an active-duty military family caring for a child with disabilities pays a current average of $1,000 a year, but the new budget will quintuple this annual cost to $5,000. MOAA Deputy Director for government relations Mike Barron elaborates that Sergeant Rank personnel will have to pay close to $5,000 out of pocket, a cost that alone pushes them below the poverty line for a family of three.
Sanders' bill would have addressed many of the long-standing hardships that veterans uniquely face, but also could have significantly offset some of the damage imposed by the new Pentagon budget by providing some $21 billion in assistance to America's 21.2 million veterans and their families. Sanders' bill was actually already paid for in full, as it just reallocated funds originally appropriated for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but Republicans attacked it by saying that it was a gross misuse of taxpayer money. In reality, this bill provided vital assistance to retired veterans, tuition aid in the tens of thousands for each veteran in a public university, increased assistance programs for sexual assault victims, finally granted healthcare assistance to Vietnam veterans who had long been stigmatized because of a misunderstanding of the nature of PTSD and would have reduced the federal deficit by $1.34 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The miserly tactics of the Pentagon and Senate Republicans comes at a time when more than 8,000 veterans take their own lives a year-more than the total number of U.S. lives lost in both Iraq and Afghanistan-at an average rate of 22 individuals a day, which is nearly twice that of civilians. Chronic pain, bodily disability, the lingering effects of PTSD and an unforgiving job market have pushed some 60,000 veterans into complete homelessness, whereas roughly 2.3 million veterans are currently living below the poverty line. Drug addiction amongst veterans has become rampant with nearly twice as many veterans overdosing every year than civilians, predominately through the use of opiates, which the Journal of the American Medical Association tied to the Veterans Affairs' inordinate opiate prescriptions to veterans suffering from mental health issues.
One of the more damning revelations of late was a study in the journal "Environmental Research," which found that U.S. Air Force reservists had been exposed to significantly harmful levels of Agent Orange that lingered on aircraft used in Vietnam. The Department of Veterans' Affairs has previously rejected reservists who sought treatment for their exposure, but this study conclusively demonstrates they are owed direly needed healthcare assistance as mandated by the Agent Orange Act of 1991.
Though I applaud the Armed Forces for finally taking America off a permanent war-footing, the way they have gone about making change is frankly repugnant. Rather than wasting $1.5 trillion on Lockheed Martin's defective F-35's, I can think of 21.2 million recipients who have more than earned our assistance.
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