President Bush watches retired Army Sgt. Major Mike Welsh in a rehabilitation session at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington last month. Looking on are former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, left, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, co-chairs of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors.
The sorry state of care of American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is not accidental. It’s on purpose. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration has fought every effort to improve care for wounded and disabled veterans.
“The Department of Defense went to war in Iraq. They hired hundreds of thousands of extra soldiers from the Guard and Reserve to make the military larger so that they could do the invasion of Iraq,” noted Paul Sullivan, a veteran of the first Gulf War who was working as a high-ranking civil servant at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington when America invaded Iraq.
“However, the Department of Veterans Affairs, they didn’t hire more doctors, and they didn’t hire more bureaucrats to help them with their paperwork.
Indeed, as the country prepared for war, the Bush administration was actively involved in scaling back veterans’ benefits. In January 2003, the VA announced that, as a cost cutting-move, it would start turning away middle-income veterans who apply for medical benefits.
The administration also proposed making the VA’s prescription drug benefit less generous, increasing co-payments for many veterans from $7 to $15 and requiring a $250 annual fee as well.
President Bush even proposed eliminating disability payments for veterans who abuse drugs or alcohol, despite the fact that substance abuse has long been connected to psychological trauma caused by the horrors of combat.
All in all, the Bush administration proposed cutting hundreds of jobs at the Veterans Administration at precisely the time programs should have been expanded to care for a tidal wave of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result, for example, the number of people charged with reviewing and approving veterans’ disability claims has actually dropped since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. According to the American Federation of Government Employees, the VA employed 1,392 veterans service representatives in June 2007, compared to 1,516 in January 2003.
What was the president thinking?
Perhaps he believed his own rhetoric that the invasion of Iraq would go quickly and easily and that somehow, magically, it would be a war that produced no wounded soldiers seeking health care or disability payments from the federal government.
More likely, though, it seems Bush was simply too cheap to care for Americans who risked their lives for their country, because when injured soldiers actually started coming home from the war, he tried to implement policies to cut them off.
A year into the war in Iraq, President Bush moved to politicize the Department of Veterans Affairs. In December 2004, he replaced the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony Principi, who had spent a career in public service, with Jim Nicholson, a real estate developer and former chair of the Republican National Committee.
In his resignation letter, Principi gave no specific reason for his departure, stating only that it was “time to move on to fresh opportunities and different challenges.” Months earlier, however, he had voiced his frustration, telling a House committee that he had asked President Bush for an additional $1.8 billion for veterans’ care, but that his request had been denied.
“Some people were disappointed when Principi abruptly left,” Sullivan remembered. “Nicholson came with no experience at all when the VA was mired in crises. The first crisis was a demand in health care and benefits by veterans. And the second crisis was a shortfall in appropriations from Congress, because the VA failed to properly plan for the consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”
Unlike Principi, Nicholson made no requests for additional money, telling Congress his agency had all the resources it needed.
But the VA had to do something, because hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were coming home and filing disability claims with the federal government.
Instead of adequately addressing those veterans’ needs, the head of the Veterans Benefits Administration, Undersecretary Daniel Cooper—the main point-person in charge of processing those claims—made his priorities clear in a fund-raising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy, in which he proclaimed that Bible study was “more important than doing my job.”
In the video, Cooper says of his Bible study, “It’s not really about carving out time; it really is a matter of saying what is important. And since that’s more important than doing the job—the job’s going to be there, whether I’m there or not.”
When Cooper was appointed in 2002, 325,000 veterans were waiting on their disability claims. Now that number is more than 600,000.
Even now—after the scandal at the Walter Reed military hospital and increasing reports of Iraq war veterans committing suicide or ending up homeless on the street—the Bush administration continues to stubbornly refuse to fund the VA.
Last week, the Navy Times reported, VA Secretary Nicholson wrote to prominent senators warning that President Bush would veto key spending bills if Congress increased funding for veterans beyond the paltry amount Bush has suggested.
In response, the Senate effectively gave Bush the finger—passing a larger VA budget by a vote of 92-1.
Aaron Glantz has reported extensively from Iraq throughout the US occupation. He runs the website War Comes Home www.warcomeshome.org, a project of KPFA Radio (kpfa.org).