But those easy and unquestioning crowds at military bases and American Legion halls will be increasingly hard to come by as soldiers and veterans start to notice the string of insults and budget cuts inflicted upon them.
Even more than his father, and Ronald Reagan before him, Bush is cutting budgets for myriad programs intended to protect or improve the lives of veterans and active-duty soldiers. Bush’s handlers have worked hard, through the use of snappy salutes and fly-boy stunts, to present the service-ducking former National Guardsman as the soldiers’ friend. But though Republicans enjoy widespread military support, Bill Clinton was the only president of the last four to cut weapons programs instead of veteran benefits.
Consider the following:
- With 130,000 soldiers still in the heat of battle in Iraq and more fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the Bush administration sought this year to cut $75 a month from the “imminent danger” pay added to soldiers’ paychecks when in battle zones. The administration sought to cut by $150 a month the family separation allowance offered to those same soldiers and others who serve overseas away from their families. Although they were termed “wasteful and unnecessary” by the White House, Congress blocked those cuts this year, largely because of Democratic votes.
- This year’s White House budget for Veterans Affairs cut $3 billion from VA hospitals—despite 9,000 casualties in Iraq and as aging Vietnam veterans demand more care. VA spending today averages $2,800 less per patient than nine years ago.
- The administration also proposed levying a $250 annual charge on all Priority 8 veterans—those with “non-service-related illnesses”—who seek treatment at VA facilities, and seeks to close VA hospitals to Priority 8 veterans who earn more than $26,000 a year.
- Until protests led to a policy change, the Bush administration also was charging injured GIs from Iraq $8 a day for food when they arrived for medical treatment at the Fort Stewart, Georgia, base where most injured are treated.
- In mid-October, the Pentagon, at the request of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, announced plans to shutter 19 commissaries—military-run stores that offer discounted food and merchandise that helps low-paid enlisted troops and their families get by—along with the possiblility of closing 19 more.
- At the same time, the Pentagon also announced it was trying to determine whether to shutter 58 military-run schools for soldiers’ children at 14 military installations.
- The White House is seeking to block a federal judge’s award of damages to a group of servicemen who sued the Iraqi government for torture during the 1991 Gulf War. The White House claims the money, to come from Iraqi assets confiscated by the United States, is needed for that country’s reconstruction.
- The administration beat back a bipartisan attempt in Congress to add $1.3 billion for VA hospitals to Bush’s request of $87 billion for war and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- In perhaps its most dangerous policy, the White House is refusing to provide more than 40,000 active-duty troops in Iraq with Kevlar body armor, leaving it up to them and their families to buy this life-saving equipment. This last bit of penny-pinching prompted Pentagon critic and Vietnam veteran Col. David Hackworth to point to “the cost of the extraordinary security” during Bush’s recent trip to Asia, which he noted grimly “would cover a vest for every soldier” in Iraq.
Increasingly, veterans, troops and their families are getting angry. Army Times, a newspaper widely read in military circles, ran a June 30 editorial saying: “President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have missed no opportunity to heap richly deserved praise on the military. But talk is cheap and getting cheaper by the day, judging by the nickel-and-dime treatment the troops are getting lately.” Ronald Conley, commander of the conservative American Legion, also recently blasted the White House for VA budget cuts and surcharges, saying: “This is a raw deal for veterans no matter how you cut it. The administration is sending a message that these vets are not a priority at all.”
In 2000, candidate Bush campaigned hard for the votes of soldiers and military families, promising “Help is on the way.” It was, but in reverse. Military votes—especially absentee ballots from soldiers posted overseas—allowed Bush and his Supreme Court backers to claim a Republican victory in Florida.
Real help may come in 2004, but it likely will be a Democrat riding to the rescue. Each of the presidential hopefuls has blasted Bush and administration officials for dishonorable discharge of their duties to military men and women.
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