Fulfilling promises to veterans must be part of any grand bargain

During the worst days of World War II, Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  Don’t these same words apply today to the “few” who defend and have defended our nation?

Most people are unaware that less than one percent of Americans serve in the active duty armed forces, the reserve or Guard; less than eight percent of the 314 million people living in the United States have ever performed military service.  And most of our former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines receive no veterans’ benefits.  

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Those who would scale back veterans’ programs argue that too many veterans are receiving federal benefits and that we don’t properly prioritize benefits to those who need them most.  The facts, however, tell a different story.

Of our 22 million living veterans, only one in four – about 5.5 million – receive any medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  Most veterans rely on private health insurance from work or use Medicare.  About 8 percent of our veterans have their home mortgages backed by the VA home loan guaranty program and less than 5 percent receive GI Bill educational benefits.  Only about one of every six veterans receives VA disability compensation – less than 15 percent of those who served – and about half of them have low disability ratings for which they receive between $129 and $395 monthly.  These benefits were earned and paid for through service and sacrifice; they are not welfare.

In order to receive VA disability compensation, veterans must first prove that their injuries and illnesses were connected to their military service, based on evidence and law.  In most cases, a veteran must provide proof that an injury or chronic illness was incurred or aggravated in service, demonstrate that there is a continuity of that condition since they left the military and have a current diagnosis for that condition.  In a small number of situations, VA can make a “presumption” that an injury or illness is service-connected because of unique challenges related to combat and military secrecy.

For example, veterans exposed to radiation from secret atomic testing who later develop certain cancers do not have to prove that their cancer began while in service.  Similarly, veterans who served in combat zones and are later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder do not have to prove that one specific combat incident caused their PTSD, which is often impossible to document due to the chaotic nature of combat.

In processing and delivering benefits to veterans, VA provides priority to those who most urgently need it.  VA health care enrollment guidelines place the most seriously injured and ill veterans in the highest priority groups.  VA also gives priority to former prisoners of war, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor awardees and catastrophically disabled veterans.  VA hospitals and clinics use the same triage procedures as other medical systems: the most urgent, serious and life-threatening conditions are treated first, followed by those who require more routine care.  Furthermore, every VA regional office processing claims for benefits regularly provides expedited treatment to veterans due to terminal or life-threatening illness, advanced age, financial hardship or homelessness.

As Congress and the president struggle to resolve the current budget crisis through a short-term deal or a “grand bargain,” they must not look to balance the budget on the backs of America’s heroes.  Veterans are not the problem; as history repeatedly shows, they are usually the solution.

Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, is executive director of Disabled American Veterans' National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, D.C.