Tributes are fine, BUT

The Palm Beach Post
Monday, May 28, 2001

America honors our veterans with movies and monuments, but artistic salutes don't address real needs or satisfy unfulfilled promises.

As Pearl Harbor opens at theaters this Memorial Day weekend, and as construction plans move ahead for the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, patriotic symbolism obscures the nation's moral obligations.

Blocks of polished granite and Ben Affleck's silver-screen heroics are empty tributes that contribute only to the already abundant romantic mythology about wars and those who fought them.

So how should America honor its veterans? What do they really want from the nation they served? They want to be treated fairly. They want government to live up to its commitments. They want a deal to be a deal. They want to hear the truth about long-term health problems, such as Agent Orange exposure and Gulf War Syndrome, that affect them and their families. They want America to keep its word.

Congress took a significant step toward all this last fall in passing a defense bill that restored the promise of free lifetime medical care for veterans who served 20 years. Until 1956, recruiters made that promise to enlistees. But with the Defense Department downsizing and scores of military hospitals closing, many vets found themselves without reliable health benefits, and all of them were shifted to Medicare coverage at age 65. The new law expands TRICARE, the HMO-like military plan, to provide lifetime care.

Congress now is considering whether to change an obscure 100-year-old law that prevents veterans from concurrently collecting full retirement pay and full compensation for disability. Many vets find their pension checks offset by disability benefits, leaving them no retirement income.
Repealing the concurrent pay restriction would cost the country about $40 billion over the next decade. Expensive? Yes, but the Pentagon is talking about spending $100 billion on an unproven missile defense system.

What about the commitment to proven sacrifice? Florida's 1.7 million veterans are the nation's oldest, yet among the youngest in that group -- those who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War -- Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome illnesses are growing. When vets appeal to the state's only Department of Veterans Affairs' processing center in St. Petersburg,
they must confront a backlog of 24,000 claims. Veterans advocates are advising clients to expect a minimum 16-month wait for even a reliminary response. A small branch processing center opening at the Riviera Beach,
VA Medical Center will help a little, but the government is
disgracefully behind in meeting the needs of the state's ailing

The best way to honor those who gave their lives for the nation is to do right by the living who served alongside and the families left behind.

The most enduring monument to veterans should be America's rock-solid covenant to ensure their fair treatment.


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