The Bush Plan: Every Veteran Left Behind

Last week it came to my attention that the federal government was once again failing our brave veterans by refusing to meet their obligations and promises.

My father taught me that there is no greater gift Americans can give to their country than being willing to fight and die for the ideals our nation was founded on. Every one of us owes a debt of gratitude to our veterans that none of us will ever be able to fully repay.

Our government owes its existence to their sacrifice. It's the government's greatest obligation to support and care for our veterans when they return from the battlefield.

Next week marks the first anniversary of the exposure of deplorable conditions for veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center. I think I can speak for all Americans when I say that we hoped this scandal would put an end to the mistreatment of our veterans by the Bush administration.

We all remember it too well: mold on the walls, leaky ceilings and veterans held in areas not fit for human habitation. It was a travesty and an insult. I hoped our federal government would turn the corner.

But last week we saw two distinct reminders that we still have a long way to go as a government, a nation and as a society when it comes to giving our veterans the dignity and respect they deserve.

First, the Bush administration began arguing in federal court that veterans have no right to mental health care:

Veterans have no legal right to specific types of medical care, the Bush administration argues in a lawsuit accusing the government of illegally denying mental health treatment to some troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The arguments, filed Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco, strike at the heart of a lawsuit filed on behalf of veterans that claims the health care system for returning troops provides little recourse when the government rejects their medical claims.

This is absolutely outrageous. Our government made a promise to our veterans. The Bush administration, trying to weasel out of their obligations to our soldiers by inventing dubious legal arguments, is a disgrace. There appears to be no threshold of shame for this government.

Today we learned that over half of the veterans who took their own lives after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan were members of the National Guard or Reserves, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The National Guard enables the states to respond to crises such as wildfires, floods and disasters like Hurricane Katrina -- and the Bush administration is arguing they shouldn't have mental health care.

We also learned last week that employers are reluctant to hire returning vets for jobs:

The 2007 study by the consulting firm Abt Associates Inc. found that 18 percent of the veterans who sought jobs within one to three years of discharge were unemployed, while one out of four who did find jobs earned less than $21,840 a year. Many had taken advantage of government programs such as the GI Bill to boost job prospects, but there was little evidence that education benefits yielded higher pay or better advancement.
The report blamed the poor prospects partly on inadequate job networks and lack of mentors after extended periods in war. It said employers often had misplaced stereotypes about veterans' fitness for employment, such as concerns they did not possess adequate technological skills, or were too rigid, lacked education or were at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The report went on to urge the federal government to work with the private sector to encourage hiring and "re-branding" of vets. Last year, I worked with State Rep. Jeff Barker to pass a similar program in Oregon, giving vets priority in hiring for public service jobs. But it's clear that much more must be done.

The federal government should be doing all it can to support our troops when they return home. They must:

Increase funding for mental health services to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated one-third of those veterans suffer mental health problems.

Implement proper screening and treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury for returning veterans. The signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is TBI. An estimated 300,000 vets may return home with some form of this injury.

Fully fund the VA health care system. Veterans are often forced to wait months for an appointment to see a doctor. They must sometimes travel great distances for care because there are too few facilities to provide effective treatment. The disgraceful conditions reported last year at Walter Reed Medical Center are symptomatic of a system-wide problem that must be addressed immediately.

We have a commitment to the men and women who have served this country in the Armed Forces. They left our shores to fight overseas for us. The absolute least we can do is fight for them when they come home. We can and must do better.