September 29, 2000


Reminding Congress To Care For Those Who Served

By Ray G. Smith

"I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense."

These words define the covenant between the more than 2 million active-duty, Reserve and National Guard troops and the nation they voluntarily protect.

While you're making the morning commute, young people, whose parents reluctantly entrust with the family care, are preparing to submit to the code of Conduct that begins with those powerful words. The are being processed at a Military Entrance Processing Station. They will be transformed physically and intellectually by rigorous training to defend freedom in the U.S. armed forces. Contrary to the elitist view _ that many young Americans enter military service because they have nowhere else to go _ these citizens at the MEPS facility are worthy of praise for embarking on the highest form of community service.

They are willing to risk life and limb for our freedom.

America's troops deserve the best training, equipment and working conditions that our grateful nation can provide. And when our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen leave military service, their country should spare no expense to compensate them for their sacrifice.

Consistent with the moral significance of military service, the men and women of The American Legion fight for the justly deserved benefits of our nation's veterans. Today (Sept., 26, 2000), I took the Legion's fight to Capitol Hill. A plainspoken native son of Johnson County, North Carolina, I testified before a joint session of congressional veterans affairs committees.

I reminded members of Congress that more than 1 million Americans sacrificed their lives on the altar of freedom; when last they exhaled, they breathed life into the Constitution of this, the greatest nation on earth. Further, I told our elected officials that those who survived military service, and the Janes and Johnnys who will come marching home from future conflicts, must not be forced to fight another battle for their health care and other benefits.

Every day, The American Legion lobbies for veterans benefits, not just on a day when the national commander is in Washington. Members of Congress know where The American Legion stands. They probably wonder why this 2.8-million member organization is so persistent.

The American Legion demands the U.S. government take care of veterans because Uncle Sam demands his patriots be prepared to fight — perhaps die — for freedom. Further, adequate benefits keep military service a viable career option and thusly play a key role in upholding national security.

The American Legion's agenda is perfectly reasonable:

• Make access to health care a lasting benefit service.

• Hold joint hearings with the armed services committees on granting military retirees and their families access to VA hospitals and pharmacies. Retirees earned free, lifetime health care from the V.A.

• Consistent with The American Legion's GI Bill of health, allow every veteran, and every veteran's family, to seek treatment at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities using a private health care plan or, if applicable, Medicare. The provider of coverage should make payments directly to the VA. Treatment would continue to be free of charge for veterans with service-connected disabilities.

• Accelerate the VA claims process by funding additional adjudicators and better training for them.

• Increase FY-2002 VA health care funding to $21.6 billion, $1.3 billion more than the House approved for FY-2001.

• Allocate $80 million to build state-run veterans nursing homes in areas of greatest need.

Clearly, The American Legions wants to maintain a foundation for all veterans.

When Legionnaires fight for veterans benefits, we're not only fighting for the Vietnam veteran exposed to Agent Orange or veterans who should receive medical treatment and compensation for Hepatitis C. We're also fighting for the Gulf War veteran suffering from mysterious symptoms that scientist must investigate and the Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals must treat. We continue to insist on improving the availability of long-term care for aging veterans.

When Legionnaires fight for military quality-of-life improvements, we're not only fighting for the military retiree whose promise of free, lifetime health care was broken by Uncle Sam. We're fighting for better pay, allowances, equipment, training and medical care for today's armed forces.

At The American Legion's insistence, Congress passed a $1.7 billion increase in veterans health care spending for FY-2000; the House sent a $1.3 billion increase for FY-2001 to the Senate. The hefty increases prove that Republicans and Democrats — Congress and administration — can be persuaded to uphold America's covenant with veterans. The American Legion, however, will not rest on its laurels.

Whenever members of Congress divide the fiscal pie, The American Legion will be there to remind them to whom an ample portion must be served: He or she who preserved freedom, justice and democracy under a cardinal vow, "I am prepared to give my life in their defense."

Ray G. Smith is national commander of The American Legion.

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