My father and George Bush have a number of things in common. Both avoided going to Vietnam by joining uniformed branches, the Texas Air National Guard in Dubya's case and the Public Health Service in my father's (Father California did, however, show up for the entirety of his two-year commitment and even extended his service for another year; we can produce many witnesses on the San Carlos Apache Reservation who can attest to his presence). Both have been flown to an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego (a heart attack canceled Father California's scheduled trip on a fighter jet, so he ended up going in a helicopter with Eddie Money, who put on a shipboard concert for the sailors).
There are differences between the two, of course. For instance, Father California gives a damn about veterans, particularly Vietnam vets, even though he opposed the war they fought in (the same is true of veterans from the current Iraq war). By contrast, Dubya has shown utter contempt for veterans, including those whom he has put in harm's way in Iraq.
Father California went straight from the Public Health Service to the VA hospital where he still works. The number of veterans he's cared for must be in the thousands by now. He's also been a leading organizer of the annual Stand Down, an outreach program for homeless Vietnam vets. He was the "Agent Orange agent" locally, pushing for recognition that Agent Orange caused medical problems. I could go on.
As for Dubya and his pals, they've raised the overall VA budget slightly, but not nearly enough to cope with increasing demand and inflation. They've cut funding for medical administration by more than half a billion dollars, medical facilities by nearly that much, and are going to charge vets $184 million more in copayments and similar charges. Father California's salary may fall next year, though the new salary structure won't be unveiled until the fall. This is not a big deal for Father California, except symbolically; if he'd gone into medicine to get rich, he sure as hell wouldn't have spent his career in the VA. But it is a symptom of a larger problem: Dubya's, and the GOP's, callous treatment of veterans.
Quite predictably, Father California told me the other day that they're seeing a significant number of freshly minted Iraq vets, as many having psychological as physical problems. This is an inevitable byproduct of war and will remain so until we create an army of cyborgs; a certain percentage of human beings tend to degrade in combat. Already, about 5% of all veterans discharged after serving in Afghanistan or Vietnam have been to VA counseling centers to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder and other pyschological problems, and some estimates say that 17% of returning service members have psychological issues. Their stories are sobering, to say the least. Nonetheless, even as its policies inflict physical and psychological wounds on thousands of young (or not so young) men and women, the administration isn't providing resources to care for them.
It's also cutting funding for VA nursing home programs--just as the WW II generation is moving into its mid-eighties. Kicking out 28,000 residents will save $351 million in direct spending, plus another $104 million in grants to states. Why should the Greatest Generation spend its last years in dignity when we've got tax cuts to make permanent?
Considering how many soldiers and vets voted for Bush, there is an understandable feeling of betrayal. The administration's response is to accuse vets of being greedy in asking to receive what they were promised. After all, if we paid for their medical care, we'd have less to spend on cozy no-bid contracts with Halliburton--or, even worse, we might have to bring back the estate tax. Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu told the Wall Street Journal that veterans' health care and other benefits have "gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself." Why do vets hate America?
Veterans' organizations are lining up against the cuts, of course, just as any advocacy groups would when their members' interests are on the line: Vietnam Veterans of America; the VFW; and the American Legion, for example. But for many Americans, and particularly for Red Staters, their pleas will sound like more than just another lobby at the trough of government spending.
So who's really supporting our troops? Bush voters with magnetic ribbons on their SUVs and fat tax cuts in their wallets? Or opponents of the war who are doing their best to take care of veterans under increasingly difficult circumstances? Ordinarily, I'm not the biggest fan of the VFW and similar organizations, but for once I agree with them: coming from a president and party who have used pro-veteran and pro-military rhetoric to win votes, this budget is an outrage.
Yesterday as our Nation observed Memorial Day, our thoughts turned to those veterans that paid the ultimate price for freedom,” remarked [American Legion National Commander Thomas P.] Cadmus. “I hope the Nation also remembers its obligation to the men and women of the armed forces – past, present, and future. Turning veterans away from a VA medical facility falls well short of that expectation.”
With American soldiers deployed across the globe, the administration has uttered platitudes about our brave young men and women on the front lines of freedom. However, this grossly inadequate budget shows that they do not understand our nation's obligation to care for veterans. [VVA President Thomas H. Corey]
"The message that this budget communicates is that part of the federal government's deficit will be balanced on the backs of military veterans," [VFW Commander in Chief John Furgess] said, "because it's clear that the proper funding of veterans health care and other programs is not an administration priority."