Who Supports the Troops? - Part I
We decided to spend the day in Jackson to do a few more interviews and work on a story about the government's failure to support the troops and provide them with adequate medical care. Back in February, I wrote an article about the lack of government funded programs in place to deal with problems facing the troops, including healthcare, posttraumatic stress syndrome, housing and employment. At the time, Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, told me: "The message our government is basically sending our troops is, 'Once you take off that uniform you're on your own.' To say the Department of Defense isn't doing an adequate job of preparing the military for civilian life would be an understatement."
That was almost five months ago. Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs admitted it is short $1 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30. The Washington Post ran an extensive article on the issue last Friday, but placed a key sentence near the end of the article: "Leaders of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans and the Disabled American Veterans all noted a striking partisan division in Congress on veterans issues, with Democrats giving them much more support than Republicans."
When we were in Dallas, we stopped by the Paralyzed Veterans of America center and sat down with legislative director Jack Richardson. Jack is in a wheelchair and often drives to Washington DC to lobby Congress to increase funding for healthcare. Here is part one of that interview:
What services do you provide here?
We take vets out of the hospital and to the movies or out to eat. I often take one breakfast up. Biscuits and gravy. They don't like the hospital food here. We do anything they want us to do. We go to the store.
How many people do you serve?
We have a 30-bed unit here.
Have these patients been here for long periods of time?
We have people like Stone here who just got back. He was here for a few months and he was cured of an ulcer. He was home for three weeks and he's back because his ulcer opened up again. They come and go. We had Brian who served in the army in Iraq. He was blown up in a humvee. It shattered his legs. We had him in here for several months for therapy. I told him not to sign a deal to get out of the army. I said, stay in and don't make them kick you out. He'd been in the army for nine years. He was a sergeant. He had a wife and three kids. So he kept going with his therapy here. Last time I saw him, he came down from Oklahoma where he was training artillery. He said he running three miles a day and getting ready to be shipped to Germany. He's gonna stay in the service. We had a young lady that was in the navy come in with a broken neck. She left after about five months on a cane and went back to the navy. But then we got someone like Tyler here who got shot in the spinal cord and the only thing that's gonna save him is stem sell research. He doesn't look too good.
What is the process involved when someone is badly injured in Baghdad?
They get processed. Then from Baghdad, they usually go to Germany and get transferred to another aircraft. Then they go to Walter Reed. From there, they are processed out to all 50 states in different hospitals and bases. When I was up in Washington, I asked Congressman Chet Edwards how many wounded they had so far because the count I got the year before was over 15,000 wounded and maimed. He said it was into the 40 thousands. Now this is accidents, trucks, everything. That includes mortars and roadside bombs. We were talking about VA hospitals and one congressman got up and said, it makes no sense to have a VA hospital on one side of the street and a regular hospital on the other side of the street. I challenged him. For one thing, the hospital across the street is a profit center. The VA hospital is a cost center. You want to send your veterans to a profit center. The hospital across the street can't buy its materials, equipment and supplies from Canada or Mexico, but the VA's equipment and material comes from Mexico.
Who makes those decisions?
I have no idea, but it says, "Made in Mexico" on the materials that I get. He shut up. When we finished, he was gonna get back to me with some answers to questions I had. Over the next five days, I saw him three more times in the halls of Congress and he turned and ran every time he saw me. I never got an answer to anything. I just got the back of his shirt going down the hallway. (laughs)
How does the funding process work? We always hear about VA budgets and government grants. It's a little confusing.
It's very confusing. What they're talking about doing now is taking the VA healthcare funding away from the Department of Defense and putting it under another department, which has less money available. Right now, in the Department of Defense, there's always a place where in an emergency, they can generate more revenue. But if they move it, there would be no money for an influx of veterans. Medical care for this year was cut to $27.7 billion for all the veterans. Fiscal year 2006, Bush sent over a budget making it $27.8 billion. The independent budget for 2006 requires $31.2 billion just to maintain the status quo, which means they're not gonna get it. They're gonna have to close down hospitals. The budget includes a $250 enrollment from the veterans who are the poorest of the poor. Now they want to get them to pay $250 just to be in the program. It also calls for an increase in prescription drug co-pay from $7 to $15. When I came in here in '95, the co-pay was nothing because I was a veteran. Congress has soundly rejected these proposals in the past. These proposals are intended to discourage veterans from enrolling in the health care system. In fact, the VA estimates these fees could result in more than 213,000 disenrolling. In 1996 and 1997, Clinton wanted all the veterans that served this country to have access to adequate healthcare. He felt they deserved it. Bush's program is to eliminate it. Each year, they've taken stuff out. They've eliminated programs that have been there since 1944. Category A was put in there so all veterans could have access to the VA healthcare system. Effective January 17, 2003, the VA no longer enrolls new veterans. Out of 25 million veterans in 1996, they went from 1.7 to 9 million after they ok'd the enrollment. Sixteen to seventeen million vets are no longer able to enroll unless they have a service connected disability. My friend Don Nelson from Walnut Creek, California, could not get healthcare because he went in and applied after January 17, 2003. He used up all his insurance from his teaching career at Stanford. So he went home and they saw what it was gonna take for him to survive and it was gonna eat up all the savings they worked for 40-something years. He stopped eating and starved himself to death.
What kind of injuries did he have?
He had a brain tumor and was left paralyzed on one side. He needed therapy. I told his wife to try to get him in the system and they told her no. She had been taking care of him for about five years and it was destroying her health and his. So that's what he did to keep from bankrupting the family, which I thought was a pretty damn brave thing to do. This country turned its back on him. It don't make sense to me. He's not the only one. We get 'em coming in here everyday. They try to get into the healthcare system and they're turned away at the gate because that January 17, 2003 provision locked them out.
When was the 2003 rule implemented?
What was the reasoning behind it?
You'll have to ask Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush about that.
Did it get a lot of media attention?
No, not at all. None of this stuff gets media attention. Remember he said he was gonna give all the troops free medical care? Read this and tell me how much free medical care that is. How many GIs will read that? They'll listen to Bush. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff on TV is all bullshit. He's hollering about medicare. OK, so what do they do? They double the medicare bill. I get social security. I get $1600 a month. They raise my premiums for medicare from $38 to $78. Very quietly, under the cover, I get a bill. My property tax was raised seven times in the last four years. You don't hear about that. They're gonna tax you out of your possessions and into total poverty so that the billionaires can have a $174 billion tax break. All this money and all this crunching of the numbers can be totally eliminated by eliminating that tax credit to the wealthiest billionaires.
When I interview Republicans about budgets and healthcare, they always bring up the importance of personal responsibility.
Personal responsibility. OK. You went out and bought $200,000 worth of stocks and get ready to retire. It's worth $10. Then what do you do? Talk to Enron. A guy who has been at Enron for 30 years was on TV and said, yesterday I had $3.2 million. Today I got $9,000. I'm too old to get another job. He's 60 years old. If he didn't have social security to go with his $9,000, he'd have nothing. I lost over $100,000 in the stock market. I have 401Ks, I have IRAs. Everyone can have those. That's personal responsibility, right? I've been paying social security since I was 10 years old. To me, that's another nest egg.
What's interesting to me is that the government doesn't pretend to help the homeless; it doesn't pretend to help the poor. But it does say that it helps the troops.
It doesn't. Tell me how? Why are 1,000 who came back from Iraq heading for Canada? You hear about that on the Canadian news, but you don't hear about it here. Sixty percent of those are officers. Republicans control the media. You think that Dan Rather and all those guys just decided to all of a sudden walk out the door? Do you think the general in the war quit in the middle of the damn thing because he felt that he was doing the right thing? Adios, I'm outta here. Twenty-six admirals and generals left. For a while, all you saw on TV were three-star admirals. That's all they had because the rest of them quit. They got out from under this regime because it is a bad regime. I don't know of any one group that has done as much damage to a country in a shorter period of time as this bunch has done here in the United States. Republicans say, you don't like it, tough. The head of the Republican party in charge of the committee that works with the VA said, that's just the way it is. Too bad.