July 4, VCS in the News: Vets Mull Wins and Losses in Benefit Fight

Inter Press Service

July 4, 2008, San Francisco, CA – You could hear the joy in Patrick Campbell’s voice as he reflected on U.S. President George W. Bush’s signing Monday of a new GI Bill of Rights for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s hard to actually picture that it’s done,” the legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told IPS. “There are veterans all across this country and in Iraq and Afghanistan who are dreaming bigger dreams now. When we were in Iraq we were always talking about what we were going to do when we got home and I know that now they’re over there thinking ‘I can go to any college I want to now. I can go to the best school I can get into not just the school that I can afford’.”

The new law, which is modeled on the widely popular GI Bill available to soldiers returning from World War II, guarantees Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and any U.S. citizen who serves in the military for at least three years, a full scholarship at any in-state public university, along with a monthly housing stipend and a stipend for books and materials. It more than doubled the value of education benefits from 40,000 to 90,000 dollars.

Campbell, who served in the National Guard in Iraq while obtaining a law degree from Catholic University in Washington, noted the GI Bill will allow veterans to graduate from school debt-free, changing the arcs of their careers. “I have over 100,000 dollars in student loans that I have to worry about paying back and that’s going to dictate what kind of jobs I can have in the future,” he said. “Future veterans won’t have that problem. Now veterans can go into public service jobs and dedicate themselves to service and not have to worry about having to pay back these crushing student loans.”

The Bush administration had initially opposed the GI Bill, warning it would cost tens of billions of dollars and prove cumbersome to administer. Bush also argued that if education benefits were improved, soldiers might leave the military when their terms were up rather than re-enlisting for another tour in the war-zone.

But that position proved difficult to hold once veterans were able to bring media attention to it. Newspapers across the country ran opinion pieces against the president’s position. Among the most scathing was a May 28 editorial from the New York Times. “Having saddled the military with a botched, unwinnable war, having squandered soldiers’ lives and failed them in so many ways, the commander in chief now resists giving the troops a chance at better futures out of uniform,” the editorial read. “So lavish with other people’s sacrifices, so reckless in pouring the national treasure into the sandy pit of Iraq, Mr. Bush remains as cheap as ever when it comes to helping people at home.”

Another problem for Bush was that Democratic leaders in Congress folded the GI Bill into a massive 162-billion-dollar war spending bill, which allowed him to continue fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no strings attached. If Bush wanted to continue those wars, he would need to sign the GI Bill too and on Monday signed the new law into effect.

Speaking in the Oval Office, the president praised the expanded GI Bill for paying “a debt of gratitude to our nation’s military families” which “will help us to recruit and reward the best military on the face of the Earth.”

But even as Bush signed the new GI Bill, Iraq war veterans received a significant piece of bad news from a federal judge in San Francisco. After two months of deliberations, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti ruled against the group Veterans for Common Sense, which had launched a national class action lawsuit against the Bush administration for failing to provide proper medical care and disability compensation for veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the course of the trial, the Department of Veterans Affairs was forced to release a series of damning documents which showed, among other things, that 18 U.S. war veterans commit suicide every day.

In one e-mail made public during the trial, the head of the VA’s Mental Health division, Dr. Ira Katz, advised a media spokesperson not to tell reporters 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.

“Shh!” the e-mail begins.

“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” the e-mail concludes.

Another set of documents showed that in the six months leading up to Mar. 31, 2008, 1,467 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved by the government. A third set of documents showed that veterans who appeal a VA decision to deny their disability claim have to wait an average of 1,608 days, or nearly four and a half years, for their answer.

In his 83-page opinion released Jun. 25, Judge Conti, a World War II veteran appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, said he found the statistics “troubling”, but that the groups “did not prove a systemic denial or unreasonable delay in mental health care” in their lawsuit.

Veterans for Common Sense has vowed to appeal.

“What you have with the president signing the GI Bill for the 21st century is the start of desperately needed massive overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the group’s director, Paul Sullivan, told IPS. “The VA needs an overhaul because today there are 600,000 veterans of all wars waiting on average more than six months to get disability benefits. And, according to VA’s own internal records, about 25 percent of VA’s 5 million patients wait more than a month to see a doctor.”

“We hope that with the president changing his position on caring for veterans that he will now instruct the Department of Defence and Department of Veterans Affairs to also overhaul the healthcare and disability benefits programmes for our veterans as he has just done for education with his signing of the GI Bill,” he said.

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