President’s promises to veterans unfulfilled

President Donald Trump promised to improve the lives of military veterans with improved medical care, education and other support. “We will get our veterans the care they need wherever and whenever they need it. … No more excessive red tape. Just the care and support our veterans have earned through sacrifice and service to our country. … Under the Trump Administration, America will meet its commitment to our veterans.”

In 2000, 2.3 million vets received disability benefits, but the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in more than 4.2 million veterans covered. One reason is that modern medicine has saved the lives of more of the wounded. But medical diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) created a new group of vets whose condition is not cured by modern medicine. And these days, veterans live longer and thus are increasingly reliant on their monthly disability checks and other VA services. All told, however, Trump’s campaign promises were welcomed by voting veterans frustrated by the slowness of health care and difficulties getting disability benefits.

In the 1980s, Trump was co-chair of N.Y. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, despite having avoided that war as a result of a dubious medical deferment. However, he attended only two of its meetings, one when accompanied by a reporter writing a magazine profile about him.

Not surprisingly, Trump’s limited knowledge of today’s veteran’s issues afflicted his understanding of PTSD: “When you talk about the mental health problems when people come back from war and combat, and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it.” This implication that PTSD sufferers lack mental fortitude led to criticism from veterans group leaders, but they continued to give him their votes.

In consequence, Trump promised to create a private White House hotline, “answered by a real person 24 hours a day to make sure that no valid complaint about the VA ever falls through the cracks,” and pledged that any unresolved need “must be “brought directly to me … and I will pick up the phone personally and get it completed and get it taken care of.”

Not surprisingly, for an administration that was notably slow in getting organized (there still are many unfilled positions), this promise was not fulfilled. The president did sign into law the 2017 Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Act that made it easier to remove corrupt and poor VA employees, but also made it easier to slash staffing through budget cuts. His first budget proposals for veterans were the same as those of Obama’s administration, which actually meant somewhat of a reduction due to inflation. Moreover, the President proposed ending support for disabled veterans who have reached the minimum age for Social Security benefits. This would mean a decline from $35,000 a year in VA support for a veteran to less than $13,000, thus saving $3.2 billion in 2018 and more going forward.

Congressman Mark Takano asked VA secretary David Shulkin (since fired), “If you end the payments to veterans like this, don’t you risk plunging them into poverty?” Shulkin claimed that the Trump administration was “looking at where we can make the program more responsible” — that is, by cutting the VA budget. Veteran’s organizations were alarmed. The administration then backed off its plan but did reduce the budget for Veteran’s Affairs by other means. Reducing housing benefits for veterans who were homeless was one deplorable tactic.

Freezing the federal workforce also hurt veterans, since civil service laws give important preference to veterans in filling federal jobs. But the government was not bloated: it was the same size as during the Carter, Reagan, and H.W. Bush administrations when the population served by the government was much smaller. In the 1990s, Congress ordered the VA to round down veteran’s benefit checks to the nearest dollar, saving about $6 a year per veteran. That practice ended in 2013 under Obama, but Trump’s budget restored the penny-pinching, for annual savings of $20 million in 2018.

Recently, the Trump administration has been deporting foreign-born veterans. They enlisted, sacrificed and served our country, received honorable discharges, and then many were deported. Given their patriotism, such veterans are eligible for citizenship, but many don’t realize they must apply. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) completely (or conveniently) lacks records about deportations of veterans. Although every veteran’s case is supposed to be reviewed by a senior ICE officer, the agency hasn’t done this in 70% of cases and, as a result, doesn’t know the number of veterans deported.

For a president not known for credibility, his promises to veterans were also falsehoods.

Thomas A. Regelski is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to tom.regelski@helsinki.fi.


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