Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2005 / 1 Shevat, 5765
In America, what price glory?
America's commitment to the survivors of the tsunami is a mark of our generosity. The commitment we make to those who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way to fight our wars is a mark of our character. It is reflected in two ways.
The first is the effort to save the wounded. The success is unparalleled. Some 98 percent of the wounded now survive, a mortality rate half of previous wars and down 22 percent even when compared with the first Gulf War, thanks to rapid evacuation, body armor capable of stopping high-velocity rifle rounds, fast-clot bandages, better tourniquets to preserve blood, and access to fresh whole blood that saves many soldiers from bleeding to death.
Beyond that, there is a greater understanding than there was just a few years ago of the mental stress of combat, much aggravated in Iraq, where our soldiers face an enemy who masquerades in civilian clothes and bogus uniforms and blows himself up in order to kill and maim. Post-traumatic stress disorder has a debilitating effect on the brain's chemistry that sometimes lasts the rest of a person's life, long after the war is over. It can lead to flashbacks, sleep disorders, panic attacks, survivor's guilt, depression, and emotional numbness.
For all the great advances in battlefield medicine, however, America comes up short when it comes to follow-on assistance to our men and women who bear arms. If an American in military uniform is killed, his or her family receives a one-time tax-exempt death gratuity of $12,000 and rent-free government housing for 180 days, or its equivalent. There is a special group life insurance program that could provide as much as an additional $250,000 if the serviceman or his family subscribes to the program. Compare this with the millions of dollars the families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks received. Then there is the Survivor Benefit Plan, which pays the spouse of a military person killed in action 55 percent of his or her retirement pay an amount already so low that it qualifies many military families for food stamps. Just recently, the law was revamped to allow spouses to remarry after age 57 and keep receiving this minimal compensation. But those who remarry before 57 still lose their survivor benefits.
For those who seek to return to ordinary life, the compensation is similarly mean. Injured or ill veterans must submit to a complex set of reviews before medical boards that decide whether they qualify for financial help and how much they'll receive for their disabilities. How much should a vet receive for trying to live partially or fully blind, deaf, limbless, disfigured, or brain-damaged? Much less than you would assume. Think of coping without a hip and leg, for instance, on around $12,000 a year.
Backlog. On top of this, the Department of Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed. It provides benefits and care for approximately 5 million American veterans. Typically overburdened during war, it now has a backlog of some 300,000 claims, on top of having to deal with 150,000 National Guard and Reservist veterans who have also become eligible because of service in Iraq.
Meanwhile, those from the National Guard and the Reserve who are injured on duty must navigate a system suited more to full-time soldiers. Most are required to stay on military bases to get government medical treatment and to collect their active-duty salary, as well as finish the evaluation that determines whether they return to duty or leave with severance and disability payments. This means they are away from home for way too long. The VA should allow part-timers to receive active-duty pay while they're being treated at hospitals and VA sites closer to their homes and, if necessary, to be treated by their own doctors with appropriately reasonable medical insurance.
There is some good news, however. The VA has been working hard to reduce the backlog of soldiers' claims and to cut waiting times for medical appointments. There has also been an increase in veterans' disability compensation rates up to $2,300 a month, or $27,600 a year for 100 percent disabled veterans without dependents. But President Bush proposed to cut the VA's 2005 budget request by $1.2 billion, over the objections of the secretary of veterans affairs, and to reduce the number of VA staff who handle benefit claims at the very time when the number and complexity of such claims are increasing.
This is, to put it plainly, outrageous. Our military personnel should not be treated as second-class citizens. Those wounded and disabled while fighting the war on terrorism for the rest of us will need special help to cope with the scars and disabilities inflicted by a savage, amoral enemy. Soldiers who volunteered to leave their loved ones to defend the rest of us deserve better, much better.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman