Support our troops: America's veterans expect the best, but it comes at a steep price

Pearl Harbor survivors salute during ceremonies honoring the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Reuters)
Pearl Harbor survivors salute during ceremonies honoring the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Reuters)

“… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan…” … Extract from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865.

From these few words have grown the gigantic U.S. veterans’ affairs industry. Veterans’ benefits have become one of the “third rails” of U.S. federal/social spending that is untouchable with expenditures beyond criticism and budgets always rising. But when personnel costs are now over half of the defense budget and veterans pensions/benefits a significant portion of these, enough is enough.

Today’s 21st-century “Total Army” is in no way comparable to the 1960s draftee armed forces and associated military reserves. Today mobilized reservists are expected to have (roughly) comparable competence to active duty forces. And our active duty forces have no match in the armed forces of any other nation.

For over a generation, we have not drafted a single U.S. citizen – a circumstance that permits longer, more intensive training and largely avoids the disgruntled “press-ganged” soldier whose only objective is to get out (and do as little as possible while enduring involuntary servitude). Consequently, veterans rights/benefits are now a massive element of the gigantic Department of Defense budget; personnel costs are 50 per cent of the “all volunteer” combat force.

Opposing viewpoint: David Kilgour

Canadian veterans shouldn't have to fight for benefits and services

In many respects, the United States is its veterans. Our veteran's cohort is massive: 19.6 million, of whom seven million are from the Vietnam era and 5.2 million stem from the Gulf War (1990-forward). They are well educated: 26.8 percent of those 25 years or older have a BA, earn above the U.S. median income ($36,381 vs $25,820 for non-veterans); and they vote (70 per cent vs approximately 62 per cent of the general population). Moreover, and perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to vote conservatively.

Popular attitudes overwhelmingly support them, ranging from “Thank you for your service” offered to individuals in uniform, to airport announcement of available facilities for service members, to the gilt-edged, escalator-claused pensions starting for those retiring after 20 years of active duty. While some such support reflects credible appreciation for those fighting and having fought the unending stream of Uncle Sam’s little wars, there is also substantial residual guilt for the shabby way we treated Vietnam veterans and current recognition that military personnel bear the burdens the bulk of society no longer shoulders (indeed, carefully shuns).

But “all volunteer” has a downside: it is very expensive, not only in providing competitive pay in contrast to those on the outside (who also are not subject to “unlimited risk”), and, moreover, must be “family friendly” as well.

Consequently, the armed forces provide the full panoply of services/allowances permitting middle class comfort featuring subsidized housing, medical care, recreation, education, and burials/funerals. There is attentive family support should a family member be deployed (an endless rotation of units and individuals into Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001). The reason for such effort is obvious: if the wife/family is unhappy, the soldier/sailor/airman is unhappy, and the risk rises that (s)he will depart, taking very expensive skills and sunk cost training with them.

While willingly paying the price, U.S. citizens have expected the best  not just from them, but for them.

However, like any sprawling bureaucracy, heavily fertilized with ever-growing amounts of federal funding, the Veteran’s Administration has become sclerotic (rising from $73.1 in 2006 to $163.9 billion in 2015). In 2013, upwards of 3.6 million veterans had a service-connected disability. Hence, the Department of Veterans Affairs operates the U.S.’s largest integrated health care system with more than 1,700 hospitals and associated healthcare facilities.

Perhaps that is why the scandal associated with VA medical care failures hit so hard. Secretary of Veterans Affairs General (ret) Eric Shinseki, a former Army Chief of Staff and Purple Heart-winning combat veteran, was forced to resign. He made the fatal mistake of believing his subordinates were as honorable as he. Instead, they lied over numbers on waiting lists, concealing the reality, and veterans waiting for appointments died waiting for medical attention. It reminded the cynics of the prospects for “Obamacare” and the worst aspects of Canadian medical services.

But cleansing the Augean stables of the VA medical structure is just part of the problem: costs throughout the defense system are simply too high. Hospitals (long a haven for mediocre medical personnel) need to be privatized with retirees paying a greater percentage of insurance costs. Scale-backs in pensions and services are necessary.

The best must be less expensive  and more honest.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.

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