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The $3-Trillion War
Posted on Apr 16, 2008
By James Harris
Harris: I actually do mean to harp on this because I agree with you that it is important to respect the veterans. After all, they are doing a service that we’ve asked them to. Can you share with us some of the stories, some of the accounts from veterans returned from Iraq, veterans who had trouble accessing their benefits?
Bilmes: We had, during the course of our research—and we had written two papers previously, one specifically on veterans—we had hundreds of veterans and current military servicemen write to us with their concerns. But I think a typical story is a story of a 19-year-old soldier. His name is Patrick. He’s from Texas. His aunt wrote to us because Patrick had been seriously wounded in Iraq. He had been in four hospitals, he had been, miraculously, after nine months, in Walter Reed and so forth, he had recovered. He had been visited by President Bush in the hospital. He received a Purple Heart, and so forth. But when he got back to Sugar Land, Texas, he was, for 18 months, unable to receive a single penny in disability compensation or any money that would have enabled him to take some online training courses and other training that he wanted. So, he couldn’t do his previous job as a mechanic again because he couldn’t stand up, but he wanted to try and acquire some training in another field. And it was only after his aunt contacted us and we looked into this story and we contacted Newsweek magazine, that decided to put him on the cover, or threatened to put him on the cover, that all of a sudden, remarkably, all of his benefits were paid retroactively for 18 months, from the veterans organizations.
Bilmes: But, I mean, there are hundreds of stories. We tell some of them in the book. But the fundamental issue is that the system for transitioning troops from the military to veteran status is not working. There is no seamless transition. And what we should be doing is we should be automatically providing disability benefits to our returning veterans who are wounded. Instead, when they come back, even if they are in a wheelchair, we are forcing them to prepare the equivalent of a graduate school application with dozens of different forms and pieces of paperwork that they have to fill in correctly before they can even begin the process of securing disability benefits. And on the medical side there are fantastic doctors and very dedicated nurses in many veterans hospitals and facilities, but there simply is not enough of them, and particularly if it’s a nationwide network, there are many veterans who are coming back, particularly needing mental health care, who simply do not have access to these facilities.
Harris: And you mentioned, minutes ago, that we will spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of the next 20 years alone on these types of care initiatives, helping veterans who’ve returned. Do you get the sense that a majority of the soldiers that return will be treated properly or do you get the sense that they will be stiffed?
Bilmes: Well, you know, that’s a good question. I think that there are many excellent advocates in the veterans service organizations who are working very, very hard on behalf of veterans. I think there is a bipartisan desire to do right by our veterans. On the other hand, when you look at some of the stories that have surfaced, it is hard not to feel depressed. We discovered, for example, that veterans who are enlisting and taking signing bonuses, if they are wounded, have been asked to repay their signing bonuses because they didn’t serve out their contract. We have found—and the GAO has chronicled hundreds of veterans who are being chased and hounded for small amounts of money that they allegedly owe the government, in most cases related to pieces of equipment that they lost because they were wounded or their vehicle exploded. So some of these stories are deeply disturbing, but I do believe this is an area where the American public feels very strongly that they want to fix the problem. And I just hope that we can change the mentality, change the culture of the Veterans Affairs Department to one which basically, instead of trying to sort of pre-audit every veteran before we give them the benefit, we should give them the benefit when they come home, and then we can audit a subset of them later, which is what the IRS does. We don’t all have our taxes audited, but we audit all of the veterans.
Harris: You and Joseph Stiglitz have done this remarkable evaluation of the way that money is being spent over there. Due respect, neither of you is in a position to change the policy on this. Do you get the sense that the policy that governs spending during times of war will actually be changed? What’s your gut tell you?
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