Nation’s debt transcends Veterans Day

Dear Editor:

As American communities come together to honor the sacrifice of our nation’s veterans on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the U.S. armed forces prepare to fight in Iraq. On this 84th commemoration of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the end of the Great War, I’m reminded that the tradition of the American citizen-soldier shouldn’t be taken for granted.

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation,” George Washington said.

Washington’s words hold true today.

Veterans Day is not only a day America imparts a collective “Thank you” to its 25 million veterans of military service. It’s a day, for the sake of military readiness, that America should take stock of how well it’s treating its veterans.

The American Legion surely takes stock. And, frankly, there is room for improvement.

More than 6 million veterans are enrolled to receive treatment in the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system but chronic under-funding leaves dedicated VA health care professionals under-staffed and under-resourced, resulting in waits of up to a year for thousands of VA patients to see doctors.

Hundreds of thousands of claims for veterans disability compensation are piled on desks throughout VA’s benefits system. The situation is so bad that older veterans die while waiting months for their claims for service-connected disability to be processed.

More than a half million military retirees are robbed of a portion of their retired pay equal to the amount of compensation they receive from VA for their service-connected disabilities. A political stalemate on the conference committee that is negotiating the 2003 National Defense Authorization is bogging down “concurrent receipt” legislation that would repeal these cuts in retired pay. The president’s non-veteran advisors say he should veto such legislation because it would cost too much to pay service-disabled military retirees every penny they earned. A veteran who retires from a civilian federal job fully collects both disability compensation and retired pay.

An invasion of Iraq could result in the mobilization of about 300,000 members of Reserve and National Guard units. Increasing the active-duty force, from its current 1.35 million to at least 1.6 million, is a more sensible way to correct the undersized total force than demanding long-term deployments from Reserve and Guard personnel, even though the Reserve and Guard units are highly capable.

But America’s best and brightest young men and women weigh more than the annual celebrations when they consider military service. They look at the quality of veterans health care for one.

It’s up to the people, not only veterans and their families but all Americans, to remind their elected representatives in Congress to make sure a grateful nation pays its full debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed.

Ronald F. Conley

American Legion National Commander

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