COMMENTARY: MYRIAM MARQUEZ
Vets served and sacrificed yet Washington plays politics
July 24, 2003
Not a day goes by that I don't hear from a desperate disabled career military veteran. They served 20 years or more in some of the most grueling conditions -- underpaid, under-appreciated and now, in their twilight years, forgotten.
Forgotten by the very politicians who promise them the world during election time only to hide and search for political cover once in office.
They all want to share their stories, to show me their medals and the documents that detail their disabilities, ranging from minor to devastatingly severe. Stonewalled by an unfair centuries-old law that prohibits career military who are hurt while serving their country from getting full retirement pay if they also get disability payments, these military retirees -- some 710,000 and dying -- hope to get fellow Americans' attention, to build support for fair treatment. They turn to the Fourth Estate because President Bush and members of Congress continue to play games with parliamentary procedures and double-talk.
It's particularly frustrating for these men and women because, under current law, there's an unfair double-standard that rewards those who do their short stint in the service and move on with their lives. Other disabled vets who do not make a career in the military can get their full benefits. Those vets may have gone on to work in another federal agency, and, upon retirement, they can collect both their federal pensions in full and their military-disability pay.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush promised vets their due, yet the White House now threatens to veto any legislation that would grant parity. Even a congressional compromise reached last year that would give the most severely disabled retirees with combat-related injuries or illnesses a fair shake has been stuck in a bureaucratic limbo of rule-making to see who would qualify -- at best, only about 5 percent of all disabled career military.
Meanwhile, the politicos continue their game-playing, stalling votes on legislation proposed again this year by, among others, Florida Republican Rep. Michael Bilirakis. That bill seeks full retirement and disability pay, though veterans groups tracking the bill say a compromise is in the offing to phase in the program over five years to about 90,000 seriously disabled vets.
In a July 8 letter to the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld maintained that allowing all career disabled military to receive their due in the so-called concurrent-receipt legislation would break the federal budget. He estimates it would cost $57 billion during a decade.
Funny, there doesn't seem to be much concern in the Bush administration about breaking the disabled vets, some of them living at or near poverty, by maintaining the status quo. Or, for that matter, about the federal budget deficit that's spiraling out of control, thanks in large part to Bush's trillion-dollars-plus in tax cuts over the same decade.
Seems that most everyone's playing politics with this issue, just as they've reneged on past promises for critical veterans' health-care benefits and fair compensation for military widows and widowers. In the Senate, there are 65 co-sponsors to allow full pension and disability to career military and in the House there are 352 members backing Bilirakis' bill. Yet the vote is being held hostage by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and others. They hope to spare Bush from the public-relations fiasco of a veto just as America is embroiled in a war on terrorism and young men and women are being injured and killed in Iraq.
House Democrats, hoping to create a re-election liability for both Republican members of Congress and Bush in 2004, signed a discharge petition to force a vote on Bilirakis' bill, and there's talk that Hastert is pushing the White House to come up with a compromise before the August recess.
The career vets' cause has brought 52 retired generals and other high-ranking officers to their defense. "We urge you as commander-in-chief to speak for the thousands of disabled GIs who faithfully served their country for an entire career, were disabled in service to their country and now find their retired pay taxed at a rate of 100 percent of their disability compensation," they said in a letter to Bush.
Maybe Bush's political czar Karl Rove will add up the numbers (of vets, their families and supporters who go to the polls) and see what's at stake. Or perhaps the White House believes the vets are bluffing when they vow not to be snookered again by promises never delivered.
Soon enough, the old vets who gave their all for their country will get their chance to show Bush and members of Congress up for re-election just who's bluffing now.