Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul, 5763

Joseph L. Galloway

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Consumer Reports

Newest injustice to disabled vets: Robbing Sgt. Peter to pay Sgt. Paul | Robbing Peter to pay Paul is an old, old game in Congress, but seldom has it been played so blatantly as in the slow, grudging retreat of the Bush administration and Republican legislators on the issue of the Disabled Veterans Tax.

Three months ago I wrote that the Republicans had stalled a vote on a bill to erase a century-old injustice whereby the money disabled American military veterans collect in disability pay from the Veterans Administration is deducted, dollar for dollar, from their military retirement pay.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld advised the White House to veto the Defense Appropriations Bill if it contained language that allowed disabled veterans to collect both their pensions and the disability pay they'd earned by their suffering.

What's new? Well, America's nearly 600,000 disabled veterans created a firestorm, and the heat is melting the Republican opposition. The veterans, normally a safe Republican bloc, were threatening to vote against those in Congress and the man in the White House unless they got both their pensions and their disability pay.

What's new is a proposed substitute travesty of justice. Under a so-called compromise plan to placate the men and women who've fought their country's wars, the Republicans propose a rolling five-year correction of one injustice and the imposition of another to pay the cost of fixing the first injustice. Robbing Sgt. Peter to pay Sgt. Paul.

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The cost of satisfying the demands of the old veterans - estimated at $58 billion over 10 years, or $29 billion less than the administration now wants for Iraq and Afghanistan for a single year - would be borne by those now serving in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, South Korea and a hundred other countries around the world.

The so-called compromise would redefine "service-related injury" for those now on duty in our military so that two-thirds of future retirees could not qualify for disability pay - and this would be done by legislative fiat without any public hearing.

Rumsfeld and the Defense Department clearly are reluctant to see any change in the status quo, for reasons that will become obvious. Each year, the Department of Defense budgets a sum of money to pay all military retirees their pensions. Then, they deduct the amount the VA pays in disability income from the pension checks.

Does the money saved go back to the Treasury? Is there a Tooth Fairy? Of course not: It goes into the general Pentagon budget to be spent on present and future wars that create more disabled veterans.

The White House's definition of fiscal responsibility mirrors its philosophy toward tax cuts: The next generation of military retirees can pay for it. No one has yet suggested that the cost could be borne by a tax on defense contractors who have no-bid, cost-plus contracts in Iraq or Bosnia and grow fat on the wages of war.

Veterans organizations, from the American Legion to the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Disabled American Veterans to ad hoc Internet groups of old warriors who've stirred the pot with e-mails to Congress, are looking askance at the suggested "compromise."

The veterans' organizations are demanding a full study and public hearings before a word is changed in how the government defines "service-related injury." They anticipate such a study would require several years - years in which disabled veterans would draw their full pensions and full disability pay and currently serving troops would be judged under present language governing disabling injuries.

A group of 401 retired generals and admirals signed a letter to President Bush earlier this month urging him to do the right thing by changing the law that penalizes disabled military retirees.

Although the government estimates that revoking the law that penalizes disabled retirees would cost billions, Army Lt. Gen. Billy Thomas (ret.), who organized the flag officers' protest letter, said this is "an ethical and moral issue ... not a money issue."

In the words of one veteran on the Internet: "If George Bush only knew how deep and bitter the sentiment over this issue ... really is, he would immediately order his stooges and henchmen to back off and do the right thing. It will definitely be `Out the Door in 2004' for everyone who did not support disabled military retirees. ..."

Republicans in Congress, understandably, are praying for a swift resolution of this issue, no matter what it costs.

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Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Comment by clicking here.


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07/10/03: Why is the GOP blocking abolishment of Disabled Veterans Tax!?
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06/26/03: Helping disabled veterans with college life is this man's goal

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