Veterans’ benefits: How Congress betrayed the nation
By Stephan Drew
Last Monday was Memorial Day. In our city, and around the nation, people gathered to honor those who have fallen while in service to our country. We owe them a debt of gratitude we can never possibly repay. Because of those brave men and women who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice, we are able to sleep safely at night. There are no secret infiltrations going on in the dead of night. There are no incoming missiles killing our children or jarring us from our sleep. There are no militant rebel groups storming our homes, slaying us and destroying our property. There are no foreign governments holding ultimate power over us. We are not afraid to walk the streets, shop where we desire, buy whatever we want, worship however we wish, send our children to whatever schools we choose, involve ourselves in any organization we prefer, and speak our minds freely (no matter how offensive) as often as we like. We have all these freedoms because of the courageous men and women who gave their lives to secure these privileges for us. They were called for duty. They answered that call. They not only gave years of hard work and diligent service to us, they gave the most precious gift they possessed – their lives. I have to wonder if we truly appreciate their sacrifice and whether we actually deserve it. But, more importantly, I wonder if we are fulfilling our promise to them? You see, before the mid-1980s, when someone enlisted in the military, they were given certain guarantees by our government (“We the people”). They were assured that, if they did as they were asked, served honorably and gave us 20 years of their lives, they would not only receive a retirement commensurate with their rank and length of service, but would also have all of their medical expenses taken care of at no cost whatsoever to the veteran. It was a way of saying, “If you give us 100 percent now, we’ll take care of you 100 percent later on.” And it worked. For decades, military personnel did their part and happily gave their entire lives to the U.S. military, knowing that, when retirement came, they would have no worries in their golden years. They didn’t mind working hard, struggling and doing whatever they had to as long as they knew the reward was waiting for them. That began to change over 30 years ago. As politicians often do, our U.S. Congress decided to “tinker” with military benefits. Although previous administrations and congresses had made sacred promises to our military personnel, our lawmakers in the late 1980s decided they knew better and could rearrange the benefits to be more “effective.” What’s that old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Evidently, these “public servants” hadn’t heard that phrase. They began an overhaul of veterans benefits that made them almost unrecognizable compared to what they were before. Since many veterans were old enough to collect Social Security and Medicare, it was decided to tie military retirements to insurance and healthcare costs. So veterans were forced to begin paying for the health insurance that they were promised they would receive free of charge. So that they never had to raise the amount of retirement payments to veterans, it was decided that the increase in benefits would always coincide with an increase in insurance premiums. But, of course, politicians know how propaganda works and they came up with a plan. Veterans always received notice of an increase in retirement pay FIRST. This would give them a little while to be excited about getting more money. Then, maybe a week or so later, they would be notified that the cost of their health insurance had also increased. It is ironic that the increase in insurance premiums was exactly the same amount as (or usually a little more than) the increase in pay. Isn’t it funny how that works out? Never mind that these brave veterans had served their country unquestioningly. Never mind that many had been injured during their service to our nation. Never mind that an agreement had been made. Evidently, politicians are not bound by any promise, oath or sacred vow. They drastically altered the agreement that had been made with these courageous men and women in service. It wasn’t put to a vote by the American people. Congress just made it happen. They broke their promise. They turned their backs on the men and women who had given their lives for this country. They lied to their faces. And then they smiled. As their photos were taken, legislators proudly rejoiced that they had created “a new and better system for everyone.” Well, you can ask the military veterans today if their retirement benefits are in better shape than before and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one who says “yes.” These men and women are the main reason we sleep safely at night. They are the ones who protected the rights and freedoms we take for granted every day. And yet, many people feel they aren’t owed anything but a kind word, a hug and a waving flag. Yes, it’s appropriate that we gather to honor them. It is correct that we respect them and keep them forever in our memories. They deserve to be remembered and, I’m sure, they would greatly appreciate it. But flag-waving, songs and speeches won’t pay for their groceries, their utilities, their rent or their hospital bills. We made agreements that have been broken and that has left our veterans suffering. We need to fix our broken promises and show our veterans that we honor our commitments. Pretty words and music are always nice. But real help means so much more.