They seem to do it all. First and foremost, they protect and defend us. They overthrow enemy regimes, fighting and dying on snow-capped mountains and in arid deserts, in jungles and cities, on land and sea and in the skies. Along the way, they build hospitals, refurbish schools, serve as de facto diplomats, feed starving kids and rebuild broken nations. They respond to disasters of biblical proportion in places as disparate as Sumatra, Louisiana and Pakistan. They leave limbs on faraway battlefields and come home with nightmares. Yet they have returned, again and again, to the battlefront in order to protect the home front.
In short, they have done everything we ask of them. And yet they ask for very little in return. So how can we ever repay this generation of veterans? I don’t have all the answers to that weighty question, but I have some ideas.
John Keegan argues in his History of Warfare that “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” But more than that, all civilizations owe their continued existence to the warrior. This is especially true of our civilization. We dare not think about it, but the line separating us, protecting us, from another dark age is terrifyingly thin. And those 1.4 million warriors who wear our nation’s uniform stand on that line.
In recent years, Congress has mulled a number of measures to expand veterans’ benefits—bills creating new flexibility in education programs; offering education debt forgiveness; offering monthly stipends to veterans pursuing a doctoral degree in engineering, mathematics, or other technology disciplines; covering child care; deferring student loans; offering expanded healthcare coverage. And the list goes on.
These and other measures are worthwhile. But our aim should not merely be the creation of new government programs—although if anyone deserves them, it is the men and women who fight to keep us free. At $109.2 billion, including some $87 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the proposed military construction and veterans’ benefit budget is proof that Americans are funding plenty of veterans’ programs.
Yet repaying our veterans is not about throwing money at them, for we all know that money is not the measure of appreciation or gratitude. Instead, our aim should be the empowerment of these returning warriors. Of course, given their boundless skills and creativity, they don’t need to be empowered so much as unhindered. (We will return to that in a moment.)
We’re moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Spurred—and stung—by revelations of deplorable conditions and mountains of red tape at Walter Reed, President George W. Bush created a commission and introduced legislation to fix what he calls “an outdated system that needs to be changed.”
Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, who co-chaired the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors (PCCWW), called on America to “serve those injured in the line of duty while defending their nation, support their recovery and successful rehabilitation, and simplify the sometimes overly complex systems that frustrate some injured service members and their families and impede efficient care.”
The PCCWW challenges us to envision and implement “fundamental changes in care management and the disability system” for combat veterans. Among the commission’s proposals:
- Create a patient-centered Recovery Plan for every seriously injured service member to provide the right care and support at the right time in the right place. This would carry the wounded veteran from the battlefield through rehabilitation to post-rehab life.
- Update and simplify the disability determination and compensation system.
- Improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
But Dole and Shalala worry that their “recommendations are being swept up in a decades-long battle to reform the entire disability system for all service members. It is important to remember that our commission was tasked with improving care and benefits for those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Dole and Shalala note that today’s veterans “differ from the generations that came before them. They have different injuries, different needs and, thanks to advances in medicine and science, greater opportunities to transition back to fulfilling lives. They need a system that is easy to navigate and allows them to focus on building their futures.” And they deserve something as bold and creative as the original GI Bill.
Shouldering the Burden
Even as the president and Congress argue over how to end the war in Iraq and whether to launch a war in Iran, they need to come together on a comprehensive post-service plan for veterans of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). I don’t know all the intricacies of the veterans’ benefit system, but I believe America has more to offer in scope and scale than what is already on the books.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” He was only partially right, because civilization has to be defended to survive. Veterans of the GWOT are fighting for civilization itself. In doing so, they’ve already paid more than their share for the civilized society we take for granted.
- How about a multi-year federal tax exemption for all combat veterans of the GWOT, based on their length of service? This wouldn’t be lost revenue, because the government doesn’t generate a dime of revenue—it collects taxes. Given the heavy burden our defenders have been carrying in places like Kandahar and Karbala, freeing them from the tax burden, if only for a while, is a reasonable proposal—and one that would benefit veterans as well as America.
- How about a five-year federal tax exemption for combat veterans of the GWOT who start a new business? These are some of the most creative, innovative people on earth. They have fought and struggled enough to preserve our system of free enterprise. Let’s not make them struggle to participate in it.
- Because of what they have done for our country, combat veterans are more likely to need health care than average Americans. Why should they be limited to receiving that care at VA facilities? How about covering care for GWOT veterans at any hospital or healthcare facility? Such an arrangement might grow to resemble the way Medicare beneficiaries are covered virtually everywhere, or if you prefer, how vouchers can be used at any school. It would make life easier on our wounded warriors and could relieve the burden on the VA system—a burden which will only grow as our military continues to take the battle to the enemy and as the battle continues to take its toll on our military. In this regard, it pays to recall something Donald Rumsfeld said. In attempting to explain away the Pentagon’s lack of preparation for Iraq’s postwar war, Rumsfeld famously—and somewhat callously—declared, “You have to go to war with the Army you have.” In the same way, you go to war with the VA you have—and at the onset of this war, the VA was probably not configured for the tempo, demands and needs of a wartime military.
- We hear much about America falling behind in the sciences, technology, nursing and healthcare. How about covering 100 percent of the costs of undergrad and grad-school tuition, room and board, books and fees for any GWOT combat veteran wanting to earn a degree in these important fields? How about additional, tax-based incentives for those veterans who make a commitment to work at medical treatment facilities or other VA facilities?
- We hear how our grade schools and high schools need role models and teachers. How about offering cost-free screening, education and placement for those GWOT veterans who are interested in teaching opportunities?
- How about developing programs that retrain and mainstream GWOT veterans into civilian homeland-security efforts, such as: border security, airport security, port security, nuclear-plant security and other critical-infrastructure security?
- The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) was created to protect Reservists from losing their civilian jobs while on deployment. But as Amy Gershkoff of the consulting firm MSHC Partners detailed in The Washington Post, “The average time service members have to wait for USERRA complaints to be resolved is 619 days—nearly two years.” Some 16,000 Reservist complaints were filed between 2004 and 2006, but fewer than 30 percent of possible USERRA violations are ever filed. It’s time to devote resources to adjudicating these complaints and keeping our promise to citizen-soldiers, who fight, bleed and die just like active-duty troops.
We can also do more to support individuals and organizations that support veterans. For example:
- Thousands of veterans of this war are returning with devastating head injuries, “poly-trauma” and life-changing amputations. How about new tax incentives for families and businesses that “adopt” a rehabbing veteran and help him or her start a new life? How about special tax incentives for businesses that hire and retrain disabled veterans of the GWOT?
- How about empowering families to support their wounded loved ones? One important element of Bush’s recent legislative proposal, as The Washington Post reports, “would let the parents or spouses of seriously wounded combat veterans take as much as six months of unpaid leave to help with care without fear of losing their jobs.”
- Organizations like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Military Officers Association of America, Wounded Warrior and others are leading the way in helping troops, veterans and their families. They provide everything from child care to care packages, foodstuffs to scholarships, counseling to training. How about increasing the tax benefit for those Americans who contribute to these worthy organizations? Giving Americans a bigger incentive to give to these veterans-support groups would ultimately strengthen their ability to do what they do best.
- How about paying off some portion—30 percent? 50 percent?—of the tuition debt for civilian nurses, physicians and surgeons who possess needed skills and who make a multi-year commitment to work in the veterans’ healthcare system?
I disagree with the notion that America’s veterans are ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Ordinary people don’t topple dictators, liberate nations, protect civilization and then return home as if they were on a long vacation.
Some say it’s wrong to put people like this on a pedestal, but I say it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom. And we need to do something lasting for them once their service is done.
Repaying this generation of veterans is a national-security issue. Supporting combat veterans after their tours of duty are over must be recognized as part of the GWOT. If we don’t provide this generation of veterans the care they need, the opportunities they deserve, the support and respect they have earned, then others will not sign on to join the battle. And veterans themselves could become the most ardent and formidable opponents of this war—a war that is taking the heaviest toll on them and their families.