WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It's been a lousy summer for President George W. Bush. Republican leaders are grousing that he isn't doing enough to keep GOP control of the House. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has his arm in a cast, and the Pentagon press corps is beating him up because we can't find Osama's body. Diplomatic correspondents are howling that the president isn't tough enough on Israel. The business press blames him for the stock market collapse and for being soft on corporate crooks. And now the gossip columnists are piling on over the length of his vacation.
No wonder the man wants to spend a month in Crawford. But while he's at the ranch, he had better phone Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mitch Daniels or it could get even worse. If he doesn't, some of his most fervent supporters will start re-thinking their loyalty.
Who are they? America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, veterans and military retirees. The troops' lament: broken promises.
Here's the problem. When he was campaigning for commander in chief, Bush habitually said things like: "To the veteran, we owe gratitude -- shown not just in words of tribute, but in acts of care and attention. ... As president, I will work with Congress to raise the standard of service -- not just for veterans, but for our military retirees. All of them must be treated with the care they have been promised and the dignity they have earned."
Gov. Bush spoke those words to the American Legion in Milwaukee, Wisc., on Sept. 6, 2000, and replicated them throughout his campaign. America's military and veteran families -- more than 26 million of them -- heard and believed. And overwhelmingly, they voted for him -- as was evident after dimpled chads and absentee ballots became big issues in Florida. Many military and veteran families believe that if it weren't for them, George W. Bush wouldn't be president. And they may be right.
To his credit, Bush continued his courtship of veterans after his inaugural. At a Memorial Day breakfast in the East Room on May 28, 2001, he said: "America's veterans ask only that government honor its commitments as they honored theirs. They ask that their interests be protected, as they protected their country's interest in foreign lands. In all matters of concern to veterans -- from health care to program funding -- you have my pledge that those commitments will be kept.
My administration will do all it can to assist our veterans and to correct oversights of the past." Great stuff. Too bad that this week the Bush administration's budget boss, OMB Director Mitch Daniels, made all those promises appear hollow.
The issue, like so much else in the federal government, is a little-known inequity with an arcane moniker: "concurrent receipt," a provision of law that prohibits retired military veterans from drawing full retirement checks if they also receive a disability payment. What it means is that those who suffer a disabling wound defending our country will be financially punished if they somehow manage to stay in the armed forces long enough to retire. Sound nuts? It is.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me make this personal. During my 22 years in the Marines, I wasn't always quick or agile enough to get out of the way when our nation's enemies were doing bad things. My fellow Marines pinned a couple of purple hearts on my uniform to remind others of my clumsiness.
When I got around to retiring in 1988, a Navy doctor wrote up a long report describing various wounds and injuries. The Department of Veteran's Affairs took the doctor's evaluation and decided that the damage was worth about $450 per month. What I didn't understand at the time was the ingenious way our government had of paying me roughly $5,400 per year. It comes out of my own pocket. Every month, my retirement check is reduced by precisely the amount of my disability payment. And that's exactly how it's done for roughly 550,000 other disabled, retired veterans.
No one would dare to reduce retirement benefits for postal workers with hernias from hoisting mailbags. Nor would anyone in Congress have the temerity to suggest that Civil Service employees forfeit a portion of their retirement checks to pay for on-the-job injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Only those who do the dirty and dangerous work of defending this nation suffer this indignity -- the very ones who believed the president's promise that, "My administration understands America's obligations not only to those who wear the uniform today, but to those who wore the uniform in the past -- our veterans."
Unfortunately, the deficit hawks in Bush's Office of Management and Budget are now ignoring this "obligation" (his word, not mine) because fixing the problem is too expensive. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost approximately $2 billion in fiscal year 2003. Of course, bloated deficits haven't stopped Congress from padding its own payrolls or stuffing 8,341 pork-barrel projects, estimated by Citizens Against Government Waste at $20 billion, in this year's 13 appropriations bills.
What's worse, the Rumsfeld Pentagon doesn't seem to grasp that this punitive policy has an unquantifiable adverse effect on retention and combat effectiveness. Do we really want a military force led by risk-averse, desk-bound officers and NCOs who avoid the possibility of getting wounded because they don't want to financially punish their families?
Bush has said, "Veterans are a priority for this administration." He had better make those in his administration believe it because veterans also believe that old axiom, "You can't just talk the talk -- you have to walk the walk."