Republican Congress Does an About-Face on Supporting Veterans


Republican Congress Does an About-Face on Supporting VeteransAmericans seem eager to “support our troops” these days. It says so on the bumper of every other car on the road, anyway.

But how our government treats the troops when they come home – as veterans – is no cause for bumper sticker pride.

Some older veterans wait more than a year for an appointment to see a doctor via the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

If you are not a recent returning soldier, you can spend a whole day seeking help and wind up so frustrated, so desperately unsupported, that you end up calling a local newspaper columnist. I get a call like that about twice a week.

“They’re yanking us around,” said one, John Welge of Lindenhurst, a 57-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran who happened to call yesterday. “There’s so many cuts, everybody’s doing the job of three people. I’ve been on the phone all day trying to get someone to help me with a simple medical form …”

A trillion-dollar deficit, caused mainly by huge tax cuts during the past four years, has led the VA to impose many economies, small and large. Seven VA hospitals are scheduled to be closed, for instance. The VA is also reviewing the possibility of reneging on a landmark 1996 reform that more than tripled the number of veterans eligible for health-care coverage – from 2 million to 7 million.

In this strange atmosphere of VA belt-tightening when more is being asked of a current generation of troops, veterans advocates saw Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, as one of their few reliable friends.

He ushered through increases in college tuition aid for veterans, advocated for improved disability benefits, for marginally better death benefits for survivors of soldiers killed in action, for the first program for helping homeless vets. Smith frequently locked horns with his own party leadership in efforts to expand health care services.

After taking the committee chairmanship in 2001, he openly criticized Republican leaders for what he considered inadequate VA budget proposals.

“He is a very principle-based guy,” said Steve Robertson, director of legislative affairs for the American Legion. “He’s very passionate. In areas where he thought he was right, he was willing to take a stand. Veterans admired that about him.”

If you don’t follow the intricacies of Washington politics, then you might want to know how the House Republican leadership felt about Rep. Smith’s willingness to take a stand for our veterans.

They didn’t like it much.

Last week, despite protests from seven major veterans organizations including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, Smith was removed as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He had been due to step down in 2006.

He was replaced by Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), a Persian Gulf veteran who is considered more loyal to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay. According to an analysis by the Asbury Park Press, Buyer voted with his leadership 99 percent of the time while Smith’s record of conformity was only 77 percent.

Richard Fuller, legislative director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, told the Washington weekly newspaper The Hill that the motive for Smith’s removal was clearly to “make an example” of him because of his willingness to buck the leadership. Hastert and DeLay have declined to discuss it.

In a statement after his ouster, Smith said: “I honestly believe that conformity is not loyalty, that constructive disagreement is the highest sense of loyalty.”

To the House Republican leaders, though, supporting our troops apparently begins and ends with supporting our House leaders.

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