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The $3-Trillion War

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Posted on Apr 16, 2008
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Flickr / Kevindooley

By James Harris

(Page 3)

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.

Harris: Sure.

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.

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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?

Bilmes: Well, I think that, in terms of veterans, we do see some encouraging signs.  There are currently 18 pieces of legislation pending which are based, in some form, on our recommendations.  There is a strong, bipartisan desire to improve the situation for veterans.  And some of the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala commission, which were sensible, have also been enacted.  So I think there is some reason for optimism there.  On the other hand, I do not see any progress in trying to bring greater transparency and greater financial accountability to the Pentagon.  We’ve had a situation there where the Pentagon has flunked its financial audit every year for the past 10 years, where they have thousands of material weaknesses throughout their balance sheet and they are essentially unauditable.  Whereas pretty much the entire rest of government has been able to figure out ways to track where its money goes.  And I think until we get really serious about making financial accountability for money important in the Pentagon—important and required—essentially what we did for the private sector with the Sarbanes-Oxley bill—until we do something similar in the Pentagon, I am not optimistic that we will have a better understanding of how our taxes are spent with regards to the military.


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By John Howard, April 25, 2008 at 9:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Douglas, It seems you get off calling people dumb.  I think everyone is on the same team here and wants to make it better.  I bet you’re a Green Party member that finds it more rewarding to insult rather than solve.  Maybe your intellect would be better used working with people like Bilmes to solve the problem with the war than criticize. No wonder we are where we are.

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By Douglas Chalmers, April 21, 2008 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

Dumb question…....

James Harris:”...... why is it important that we take this war, and our spending, more seriously…?”

Even dumber answer…..

Linda Bilmes:  ”.....what happened throughout this war, we have essentially translated the human cost into a financial cost, and then we’ve deferred that cost….... a volunteer Army, with soldiers and Marines who we pay, and with another army of contractors who we pay, but all of that money has been borrowed…”

Once again, so much for Harvard scholars whose contemporary shallowness is verified by whats-her-name’s re-interpreting “human suffering” as merely ”...the monthly—annual burn rate of the operations going on in the field…” It would hardly surprise me if she was actually from Harvard’s business school, uhh.

No wonder she actually found writing that book “challenging” as she barely seems to be able to come to terms with the concept of “human suffering” or the human condition at all in her academic fairyland. Then again, there are people on Wall Street who like to read things that way…..

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By eplebneesta, April 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

Let’s at least garnishee all of the NeoCons’ assets until the war is paid for or they are up to their asses in brimstone. (And I don’t believe in that stuff. Especially not a hell made up by a 13th century Italian novelist.)
I know this is basically childish, but there is some value in not allowing these subhuman monsters to enjoy their ill-gotten blood money.

E Pleb Neesta

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By cyrena, April 16, 2008 at 7:43 am Link to this comment

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.

This is something that I’ve been aware of for some years now, in attempting to help what amounts to only a few of so many thousands of these veterans, to access the benefits and health care that they need.

But, it also brings to mind that the very same thing is happening on every single level where any of the corporate bureaucracy has the hammer, and that’s everywhere.

An example of the same is the experience of the widows of the American Airlines cockpit crew members who died on 9/11. (the United Airlines widows did NOT experience this problem). In short, these women were forced to go through multiple bureaucratic hoops, just to get their spouses final paychecks. The hold up? They wouldn’t release the checks because the crew members, who are paid (in part) based on their COMPLETED TRIP HOURS, had ‘failed to complete’ those flights/trips on their schedules for the day of September 11, 2001. The company held up their paychecks for weeks that turned into months, and these women had to eventually seek legal recourse to get their money.

And…NO! There isn’t the slightest thing ‘unusual’ about this. Actually, it is par for the course. Whenever and wherever any part of the corporate bureaucracy, (which includes the government, as they are now one and the same) can avoid paying anything that is legitimately due, or if they can squeeze or otherwise hound ‘the VICTIMS’ for monies that are NOT their responsibility, they do.

And…NO! There isn’t the slightest thing ‘unusual’ about this. Actually, it is par for the course. Whenever and wherever any part of the corporate bureaucracy, (which includes the government, as they are now one and the same) can avoid paying anything that is legitimately due, or if they can squeeze or otherwise hound ‘the VICTIMS’ for monies that are NOT their responsibility, they do.

I recently read an article that exposes how the private collection agencies hired by the IRS are actually COSTING more than they collect, and they hound citizens with phony claims of unpaid taxes. A friend sent me an e-mail revealing it as yet another ‘scam’ as if being perpetrated by some individual con artists. I explained that it was indeed a ‘scam’ but it was a government operation.

So, as awful as this is to be doing to our vets, the practice has long been used by multiple corporate entities; banks, insurance companies, you name it. Literally millions of citizens have been targeted at some point in time, and many have been hit multiple times. The unprecedented foreclosures are another example, because many of those have also been fraudulent and illegitimate foreclosures.

This is the same culture of scam and greed that has diminished the quality and availability of health care for our veterans. While there are still some dedicated professionals within the system, most have been run out and replaced with ...yep, private contractors for nearly every service provided..IF the vets can get any at all.

It makes me very ill.

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