In honor of Veterans Day Nov. 11, George Bush probably said a few words about those who served. That can be a tricky proposition for a war president, especially after he and his father created a new class of vets who are overwhelming the Veterans Benefits Administration. Still, as the president's re-election suggests, never misunderestimate the persuasive power of folksy political spin. Perhaps like . . .
My fellow Americans, first some good news. On this hallowed day, I'd like to announce some steps we've taken to honor our military veterans. Because the Pentagon, with a mere $425 billion annual budget, doesn't have the cash it needs for all the buglers necessary at veterans' funerals, we have begun buying fake bugles, with digital recordings of "Taps."
Pardon me while I flick away a tear.
This new thing is called the Ceremonial Bugle. It's for real. If a service member survives battle and is lucky to live long enough to die gracefully, the government will provide push-button horns that guests can play at military funerals.
You know, I think I had one of those as a kid. Came from Monkey Ward or somewhere. But mine was a bit cheaper. These babies cost $500!
We give a lot of lip service to our veterans' plights. But with this artificial final salute, we are able to truly express the country's gratitude for all they've done for us.
Thank you for your applause.
We have a lot of other obligations when it comes to veterans. Of course, many of these commitments were made in the heat of battle, or when we had to rush to war.
We used to tell our veterans they were guaranteed medical care for life. And they were—until the 1950s. That's when we first learned the rising cost of war left little in the bank for the aftermath. We felt it was our duty, however, to continue to make promises we couldn't keep.
Trouble is, there are now 26.5 million war vets in the U.S., and they are dying at the rate of only 1,000 a day. That leaves way too many for the government to financially deal with at a time when we have to launch another $5 billion aircraft carrier or build a $50 billion space-defense system to make the skies safe from anthrax balloons.
So at any one time, more than 3,000 veterans are waiting six months or longer for their first visit to the doctor. Disabled vets are waiting six months to two years for disability compensation. As of Aug. 31, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a backlog of 330,000 disabled vets awaiting evaluation. Veterans advocacy groups figure my administration has underfunded the VA by $2.6 billion.
But we are dealing with that. We have undertaken a plan to reduce VA spending over the next 10 years by $6 billion and at the same time continue our push to close VA hospitals and reduce staffing. Some veterans, such as those well-off noncombat vets who pull down $30,000 a year as civilians, have been cut off from VA medical care altogether.
I am confident that my continued tax cutting will have a lasting effect, as well.
Most veterans, having once been in the service, understand that the evil-doer is money, not policy. With war, you have to spend more than you've got, particularly if you have no idea what you're getting into. That's why we've had to charge soldiers wounded in Iraq for their hospital meals—though we stopped when word of it leaked out—and why we haven't been able to give our soldiers all the things they need, such as salaries.
A couple months back, a Government Accountability Office survey showed the Army Reserve payroll system wasn't operating as smoothly as it should. Mistakes had occurred in 95 percent of the examples the GAO examined. Most of the time it was a case of a soldier being overpaid. We have gotten tough with them, however, and now they've got to pay that money back. One guy was given $36,000 too much, and we plan to see he faces criminal charges.
And listen, soldiers are often left without paychecks. To partly make up for it, we occasionally bill some of them for their service to their country. Thirty-four soldiers in a Colorado National Guard unit stationed in Afghanistan, for example, received notices they owed the Army an average $48,000 each. Unfortunately, their unit commander—who risked his life by flying with payroll records to Kuwait, crossing Uzbekistan, where his plane was fired on—straightened out the mess, and we weren't able to collect.
We continue nonetheless to turn things around. One example: The government typically praises its troops in battle and then breaks its promises when they come home. Today, we're not waiting for them to come home! Last year, the Pentagon moved to cut troop pay for those soldiers still on the front line in Iraq. There was something of an uproar, however, and Congress quickly dashed that innovation.
Here's another cost-saving measure: Many troops live at poverty level in substandard military housing and risk their lives for $18,000 a year. They're on duty essentially 24 hours a day, which works out to $2 an hour. By keeping wages and benefits low, we are able to help the Pentagon continually expand its budget—predicted to hit a record $500 billion in a few years.
And clearly our generals need help. As it is, they can't account for 56 airplanes, 32 tanks, and 36 missile launchers, according to an inventory review, and have lost or misplaced $1 trillion in assets. Thankfully, the American taxpayer has opened his wallet wider and wider, with very little complaint.
I thank you for not holding that against me during my re-election campaign.
The VA has its budget problems, too, of course. To help solve that, I have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to cross its fingers, so there won't be a delayed reaction to some lingering war ailment that shows up in the future, overwhelming the medical system.
True, something always comes back to bite you. Cancer from frostbite in the Korean War. Hep C from infected yellow fever vaccine in World War II. Secret toxic spraying of our servicemen by our own government during the Cold War. Agent Orange in Vietnam. And Gulf War Illnesses, the "cocktail effect" of chemical exposures and use of the experimental drugs and vaccines we handed out to our forces in Gulf War I.
And I will admit, we're privately worried about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the ones we brought with us. We fired off an estimated 300 tons of armor-piercing, depleted uranium shells in my dad's war and an estimated 200 tons so far in my war. Since 1991, reported cancer cases in Iraq have quadrupled, and depleted uranium is the suspected source. It's said to be a lingering toxic nightmare for veterans from both sides of the battle.
But I should point out that my administration has yet to admit that depleted uranium poisoning is causing any lasting harm to our military. OK, Great Britain has recognized it as a disability for UK vets. But does it make any sense to follow the policies of a country that drives on the wrong side of the road?
Now, some of our soldiers destined for Iraq in 2003 were so worried about exposure to both Saddam's weapons and ours that they rushed off to have their sperm frozen before shipping out. They also feared our medical policies and bureaucracies of mass destruction.
Here's the thing, folks: I know our soldiers are fighting for democracy. It's just that the military doesn't happen to be one!
In closing, I'd like to say that during the recent presidential campaign, the important military and veterans issues weren't one guy's wartime service or the other guy's war wounds, not even whether Dan Rather should fall to his knees and apologize to the White House. The big thing probably was whether the government should apologize to our troops and vets. We outfit them with rifles that jam, protective armor that doesn't protect, equipment that breaks, and aircraft that fall from the sky. We mislead them into war and forsake them in peace.
But what can I say? Nobody brought that stuff up!
Hey, here's a big fat salute to the Swift Boat vets.
I do promise you, my fellow Americans, that, in the country's tradition of honoring our veterans, if I can't solve these problems in four more years, I will do everything in my power to leave them for the next president.
Happy Veterans Day, everyone. See you at the cemetery!
Staff writer Rick Anderson is author of Home Front: The Government's War on Soldiers (Clarity Press).