WASHINGTON - The leaders of America's most prominent veterans organizations say that President Bush is failing to honor past commitments to military men and women even as he prepares to send a new generation of soldiers and sailors into combat.
The administration's support for rescinding lifetime health benefits for World War II and Korean War veterans and continuing problems at veterans hospitals stand as proof, veteran leaders say, that America is more than willing to lean on its soldiers during times of war but tolerates them serving as political props in peacetime.
Coming after President Clinton, who avoided service in Vietnam and had a strained relationship with the military, veterans leaders say they had high expectations for Bush, who served in the National Guard and whose father was a fighter pilot during World War Two.
''I'm terribly frustrated and extremely angry,'' said retired Air Force Colonel George ''Bud'' Day, a Republican who won the Medal of Honor and was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam with Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Day said Bush is violating his oft-repeated campaign pledge to veterans: ''A promise made is a promise kept.''
''Obviously, he didn't know what that meant or he's too preoccupied to see that his word is kept,'' Day said.
Many veterans are particularly galled that the Bush administration has not backed away from a 1995 decision to rescind a promise of free lifetime health care benefits for soldiers, who from 1941 to 1956 had been told that if they signed up and served 20 years they and their dependents would get free care. The government stopped honoring that pledge in 1995, and many veterans 65 and older have been forced to pay for benefits through Medicare, which now costs about $60 a month and pays for 80 percent of medical care after a $100 deductible has been paid.
Day has represented a group of veterans hoping to get the free health care restored, but the US Court of Appeals in Washington ruled last month that the recruiters who promised the free care did not have the standing to do so.
Officials from Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars protested the decision.
The issue could become a factor in the 2004 presidential race because Day said he will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. Because of the court's schedule, the case might not be heard until late 2003 or early 2004 - if at all.
The Justice Department refused to make the attorneys handling the case available for an interview, and Justice spokesman Charles Miller declined to comment.
Deputy White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not respond to criticism of the Bush administration's record on veterans benefits or explain why the administration has supported the 1995 decision.
''President Bush has had a chance to rectify this, and he hasn't done it,'' said Ronald F. Conley, national commander of the American Legion. ''Before we spend one dime rebuilding Afghanistan and rebuilding Iraq after we bomb it to smithereens, we ought to take care of our veterans.''
Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who is considering a White House run in 2004, questioned the 1995 decision, the current administration's defense of it, and the November ruling.
''It is extraordinary to me that you give your entire career in defense of this country and then have to go to court to make the government keep their promise,'' Kerry said. ''What's the message we're sending to our troops around the world today and those prepared to fight in Iraq? The message seems to be, `Do your duty to country but your country won't fulfill its duty to you when you return home.'''
Hoping to get the president to disavow the 1995 decision on veterans health care, Day said he used a Medal of Honor reception in June to ask Bush about it personally.
''I said to him, `Mr. President, I'm Colonel Bud Day. You know your campaign [promise], a promise made is a promise kept, is being broken.' His eyes just glazed over,'' Day said. ''He really had no idea what I was talking about.''
With his wife fuming at her husband's directness with the president, Day said he explained the circumstances of the case. Lawyers from the current Justice Department have defended the '95 decision in court, so Day was hoping Bush would withdraw support for the case. Instead, Day said the president told him, ''`Colonel, you really need to talk to [Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony] Principi.'''
After pushing more with the VA, Day said he ''realized this was a dry hole.''
Veterans have experienced such disappointment before. Rhetorical support for veterans has been a staple of political discourse throughout the country's history, but veterans have long struggled to get promised benefits.
After fighting with poor weapons, equipment, and uniforms to win the Revolutionary War, only 3,000 American servicemen received pensions. Veterans of the Spanish-American War, disgusted with the lack of care available to them after their service, founded the VFW in 1899.
But benefits and care for veterans was still slim by the time World War I ended. Veterans of that war had seen their savings wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929 and pushed for the early distribution of monetary bonuses Congress had authorized. They set up tents and huts in Washington to make their point to Congress but were forcefully evicted from the area by Major General Douglas MacArthur in 1932.
The GI Bill of Rights educated and housed a generation of soldiers in the 1940s and 1950s. Free lifetime medical care was another benefit for two decades of service.
Now, that free care has been ended. Veterans can still be cared for at VA medical facilities, but the wait for non-emergency treatment is long. Citing a report indicating that more than 300,000 veterans are waiting for primary care appointments at VA facilities, the American Legion is launching a national campaign to alert federal legislators to the problem. The American Legion is sending out booklets on the problem to its 15,000 posts and collecting personal stories of ''backlogged'' veterans to tell Congress early next year.
VA spokesman Phil Budahn said the agency does not try to defend the delays veterans experience in getting care. ''There's enormous frustration from the secretary's office all the way down,'' Budahn said. ''We just don't have the staff to see them as quickly as we would like. We're fighting for the best appropriations we can get.''
Togo West Jr., secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1998 to 2000, said the VA often struggles to keep up with costs because health care is increasingly expensive and the agency's clientele is older and sicker than the general population.
''We don't ever get to do as much as we want for veterans,'' West said.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company