EVEN AS President Bush sends American soldiers into Iraq, he is cutting their benefits.
Two Californians -- Pfc. Karina Lau, 20, of Livingston, and Staff Sgt. Paul A. Velazquez, 29, from San Diego -- died last week when their Chinook helicopter was shot down over Fallujah, Iraq. Fourteen others perished with them. I wonder if the 20 injured soldiers who survived the crash know their veteran's benefits are being torpedoed by the same folks who put them in harm's way.
A system that once provided health care for those who served their country is now reneging on that promise. The president has refused a congressional request for $275 million in emergency funds to cover the Veterans Administration health-care shortfall last year. Remember, that was the year Bush got an extra $50 billion for his so-called war on terrorism.
Now he wants to slash $2 billion more from the VA's strained budget for 2004, and continue the assault on benefits over the next decade. House Republicans voted to take a whopping $28 billion from vets over 10 years -- on the same March day they passed a resolution supporting our troops in Iraq.
Department of Veterans Affairs head, Anthony Principi, is the Bush appointee in charge of implementing this strategy. "We have reformed our department," he touts. Indeed, Principi's tenure has seen a steady decline in the number of nurses at VA facilities, and those remaining are routinely subjected to mandatory overtime. Bobby L. Harnage, of the American Federation of Government Employees, states, "The veterans' health-care system is in a state of shock from the combined traumas of flat-line budgets, staffing cuts, bed closures, restructuring and contracting out."
As you read this, more than 200,000 veterans have been waiting six months or more (two years for some!) for their first VA appointment.
And the system is getting more expensive to use. Bush more than tripled the cost of medications to veterans in February 2002, while he sent tens of thousands of Americans to fight in Afghanistan.
My father happened to survived 20 sorties over Nazi Germany during World War II. Now he suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and has taken to refusing doctors outside the VA system. "Thank goodness for the Veterans Administration, " I thought.
This summer, he received an odd letter from the VA. "Your priority for enrollment in the VA health-care system has been changed to Priority Group 8," it informed him. This brand-new category comes with new rules. Thus, he is eligible for less coverage, at a higher co-pay than before. As it turns out, at least 164,000 veterans have been similarly "reclassified."
More sinister yet is the stipulation that any Group 8 vet who was not enrolled in the system as of Jan. 16, 2003, will no longer be eligible for VA health care at all, with or without copayment. That means that a veteran must either be impoverished or service-related disabled, or both, to qualify. Are our soldiers in Iraq aware of this?
The Veterans for Foreign Wars organization sums it up thus: "The shortage in funding has forced VA to ration health care by increasing waiting times, raising copayment amounts and removing veterans from the system altogether."
In other words, the VA will no longer be a way for a grateful country to treat its veterans with dignity and respect. Instead, it is being turned into a welfare repository for the growing number of former servicemen in poverty.
Squeezing health care isn't the whole story. Pensions, education and other military benefits are also under attack.
Shortchanging veterans started with President Ronald Reagan, who -- like Bush -- avoided combat duty. But the current administration seems bent on gutting benefits to our servicemen and women more than any president since the Veterans Administration was established in 1930.
My condolences go out to the Lau and Velazquez families, and to their surviving comrades.
Maile Melkonian is a former radio commentator for Public Radio International and reporter for Japan's NHK.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle