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Back of the Hand to Those Who Gave So Much

Elderly veterans find government promise is empty.

November 25, 2002|Jonathan Turley | Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.

It may be one of the cruelest bait-and-switches in history. At issue is a promise by the government to World War II and Korean War veterans that their health-care benefits would be guaranteed for life.

Now that this bill has come due, the government has reneged and said it is not legally bound to make good on its promise.

One of these veterans is Robert Reinlie, who had more than 30 missions in a B-17 bomber over Europe during World War II. He flew through walls of German flak and antiaircraft fire to survive in one of the war's most hazardous duties. Now, at 81, he is fighting his own government in court, and this time he is losing.

A federal court of appeals in Washington ruled last week that although a promise was made by the government, it was a promise that could legally be broken. The court ruled that the loss was significant for these veterans and that the breach of the promise was shocking. Yet it could not force the government to act morally.

This controversy began near the end of World War II, when the military was struggling to keep veterans in its ranks. A war against the Soviet Union was viewed as almost inevitable, and the government needed veterans like Reinlie.

So it made a promise: If military personnel would serve at least 20 years, they would receive free lifetime medical care for themselves and their dependents.

Tens of thousands of veterans responded and soon found themselves fighting in Korea against waves of Chinese soldiers. They had made a promise to serve, and this was a generation that was taught to keep a promise, even at the cost of one's life.

The government has never denied that it made this promise. However, in 1995 the Clinton administration was looking for things to cut out of a budget to fund greater priorities, like politically popular subsidies and transportation projects. Government lawyers soon realized that, even though a promise was made, the only thing preventing Washington from reneging was a moral commitment.

In our government, this made it an easy decision.

The government informed all veterans over 65 (by definition all of the World War II and Korea veterans) that they would have to seek medical care from Medicare. Though they could request free care from military hospitals, they were given the lowest priority for such care and usually were turned away because of the downsizing of military facilities.

As a result, most had to purchase supplemental policies, which could cost hundreds of dollars a month. Many of these veterans, almost all in their 80s and 90s, cannot afford the additional cost for the health care that they were promised would be covered.

While fighting the veterans in court, the Clinton and Bush administrations secured billions of dollars in pork-barrel projects, special-interests breaks and subsidies from a willing Congress -- a Congress that recently appointed a committee to expand its own taxpayer-funded health club and recreation facilities. Many members of Congress apparently believe that the Battle of the Bulge refers to their own selfless struggle against unsightly weight gain.

The hypocrisy of our government was never clearer than this month on Veterans Day. While these politicians were using World War II veterans as human props, government lawyers were in court stripping them of their benefits. While officials waxed poetic about the "debt that we owe and can never repay" this greatest generation, the administration was busy contesting any legal obligation to pay at all.

Ironically, Washington had to rush to guarantee an insulting end to the lives of those who gave so much to so many. World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,200 a day.

In some ways, the government is acting consistently with its past. In 1932, more than 20,000 veterans of World War I camped out in Washington demanding promised bonuses from Congress. The government sent in tanks under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who viciously attacked with heavily armed troops and burned their makeshift camp to the ground.

So now our politicians are busy sending off a new generation of young Americans to fight in our name. We have promised them much, and politicians have again professed undying support for them and their families. Meanwhile, the government is trying to quickly dispatch one generation of veterans before the first of the new generation of wounded come home.

Of course, the dwindling number of World II veterans will still be sought out by these same politicians for photo ops every Veterans Day and pushed to the front of the parade. They just have to watch their step; if they trip and break a hip, they are on their own.

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