August 1, 2003


Veterans health care funding slaughtered in rush for pork

By Ronald Conley

On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives broke faith with our nation’s veterans by removing $1.8 billion from the VA medical appropriations bill it had agreed to in April.

At a time when our nation is engaged in a worldwide war on terrorism, and 200,000 veterans from previous wars are still standing in line for medical care, the Congress of the United States decided that funding 1,000 pork barrel projects was more important than ensuring that veterans receive timely, quality medical care. Where in the name of God are their priorities?

We have money to pay for a statue of the Roman god Vulcan in Birmingham, AL. We have money to pay for a bike trail in North Dakota. We have money to fund a Nevada helicopter company that performs Elvis impersonator weddings. And yet we have neither the heart nor the will to ensure that all United States veterans receive the medical care they earned and we owe them. This is outrageous and I can not believe the American people will stand for this.

During the past year, I’ve visited more than 60 VA hospitals. Last month I visited a military hospital in Germany that was receiving three plane loads of wounded veterans a day. Last week I visited several hundred more wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC. I have never met such patriotic, dedicated and committed young men.

To a man, each wanted to be back in Iraq with his buddies, with his unit. One young man from Micronesia, who had lost both legs and a arm, was just staring at the ceiling, obviously wondering how he would be able to cope with living. Another young man from Pennsylvania wasn’t staring at anything. He was blind. One leg had been amputated and his arm mangled. Another had his leg crushed by a tank.

Each of them, like thousands of their brothers and sisters in previous wars, was passing through Walter Reed on their way, eventually, to a VA hospital, joining those in the long, long line waiting for care because the system is desperately under funded.

I suggest that Congress make a point of visiting Walter Reed and the local VA hospitals in Washington – they’re right up the street from where they voted yesterday to decimate the VA medical budget. These men and women are not merely numbers; they’re not merely statistics. They are the human toll taken by war, and we owe them first priority in any budget decision made on behalf of the American people.

The inevitable result of Congress ignoring its duty and breaking its promise will be deprivation for those who have paid the price for freedom. I can’t help but wonder what is happening to the moral fiber of our country when those we have elected turn their backs on the bravest of the brave.

In 2004, the United States will be dedicating a memorial to the 16 million men and women who fought in World War II. We already have memorials for the 15 million who fought in Korea and Vietnam. Today, we have soldiers in more than 130 countries waging a war on terrorism whose end is not yet in sight.

During the past 60 years, nearly every family in America has sent one or more of their sons and daughters to fight somewhere in defense of freedom. Don’t you think that the very least we owe them is adequate medical care provided in a timely manner?

No community is untouched by war. Somewhere in your neighborhood there flies a Blue Star Banner, or Gold Star Banner, signifying a sacrifice made by a family on the altar of freedom. Do you think that these families – do you think that these Americans — will stand idly by while Congress refuses to fully care for those who bore the battle?

I don’t think so. America will not accept this VA budget. We will take this fight directly to the people and there will be no armistice until every veteran, everywhere, receives the medical care so richly deserved.

Ronald F. Conley is national commander of the 2.8-million member American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.

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