Along with the traditional wreath-laying and other solemn Veterans Day ceremonies, this year we must also take note of some collateral damage to veterans resulting from the 2010 election. • Namely: the end of a historically productive era of House Veterans' Affairs Committee leadership by staunch veterans' advocates, led by Chairman Bob Filner, a California Democrat who pressed for and achieved crucial reforms within the Department of Veterans Affairs. (In contrast, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee has been more sedate, less active and assertive.)
Strong advocacy of military veterans who have been repeatedly delayed and denied benefits they earned in wartime is not a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats, or conservatives vs. liberals; and it certainly is not about which party or philosophy is more patriotic.
But for decades, the VA operated as if too many of its bureaucrats saw their role as workers in a Department of Veterans Adversaries. In researching for my 2008 book, Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles, I came upon countless cases in which the VA had routinely delayed and denied veterans payments of benefits they clearly had earned. I wrote about many such cases, among them: Eric Adams of Tampa, a military policeman who led truck convoys through the dangerous roadways of Iraq. One day, a bomb exploded in front of his van and a huge semitrailer truck crashed into him from the rear. He was denied benefits by a VA person in Atlanta who decided he had never been in combat.
Later, Adams was denied benefits for posttraumatic stress disorder by a VA bureaucrat who ruled that he didn't have it — and when Adams noted that his records showed two VA psychiatrists said he did, the VA bureaucrat shot back that, well, then he was denied benefits anyway because he hadn't proven the specific stressor incident that caused his PTSD.
Then there was National Guardsman Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill., who drove a truck that was attacked near Baghdad. He got benefits for losing an arm but not for his body that was riddled with shrapnel. A VA claim adjudicator wrote: "Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected."
But with the House ruled by a new and powerful Republican majority after Jan. 1, members of the GOP will chair all committees. The result, in most committees, may prove highly palatable to a majority of Americans.
But it is unlikely that the men and women who fought our wars in faraway lands will find their interests advocated as forcefully and vigorously back in Washington as they were under the leadership of not just the committee chairman, Filner, who will now be the committee's ranking minority member, but also two Democratic subcommittee chairs who were defeated — Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who headed the House veterans' disability affairs subcommittee, and veterans economic subcommittee chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a centrist Democrat.
Hall led a heroic but carefully behind-the-scenes fight, seeking results, not media glory, to persuade the VA to stop demanding a veteran prove the specific "stressor" that caused her or his PTSD. The VA, now headed by Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former four-star Army general, agreed. Shinseki also has moved assertively to implement many reforms to help women military veterans, a cause championed by Sandlin.
But the biggest battles for veterans' benefits remain to be fought. As the Republicans take control of the House, spurred by their tea party colleagues, they will be seeking to cut the budget — and to many that means cutting back on the veterans' budget.
Filner has battled to educate his colleagues and the executive branch on the true ongoing cost of war — which must include caring for the men and women we send to fight our battles for us. When our planes and boats become obsolete, we mothball them and send new ones to war.
But we dare not mothball our military veterans when they become too old to fight for us. We owe them the care we promised them — for life.
© 2010 Scripps Howard News Service