Washington Matters


Making Veterans Day Count

Richard Sammon

Honoring and caring for veterans will soon grow much more costly, forcing Congress to struggle to find funds.



Of all the federal holidays on our national calendar, Veterans Day is the most sacred and solemn.

Independence Day celebrates our freedom and determination to govern independently. Presidents' Day celebrates the early leaders who guided the country through times of struggle and triumph. Labor Day respects the work and effort of our brothers and sisters. Columbus Day reminds us of the constant search for new horizons. Thanksgiving is a time to pause and give thanks for those who made the whole experience possible.

Veterans Day also provides time for pause and thanks, but for sacrifices that continue today -- and tomorrow. My own appreciation and respect for the day came from my father, a World War II Navy officer on a destroyer in the Pacific. On every Veterans Day, he ordered us children not to utter a word between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. He never said why we had to be entirely quiet during those two solemn hours, and we never asked. But we assumed it was to force us to think and remember, to go at least a couple of hours without idle conversation and merrymaking.

This year, Veterans Day comes ahead of what's likely to be a big congressional debate over what to do about exploding health care costs for vets. As the next Congress assembles in January, deficit hawks in both parties and in the White House are eyeing veterans benefits, which are on course to escalate sharply over the next decade.

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A hidden and often unspoken toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a long-term rise in veterans' health problems -- and the cost of addressing them.

Veterans care has always been sacrosanct, an untouchable budget item, but treating thousands of returning servicemen and -women from the Middle East military missions will throw a fiscal wrench into deficit cutting efforts.

The hard math is inescapable. Current annual spending on medical costs by the Department of Veterans Affairs is $48 billion. Figure on this cost to go up by 75% over the next 10 years, to $85 billion and possibly higher, as more veterans return in need of care. The projection also includes all military personnel deployed elsewhere in the world who require care.

Some of this debate will turn to regular annual defense spending. Why cut veterans benefits when other programs can easily be reduced will be a repeated theme. But cutting a weapons program or two in the next budget -- a hard task in itself -- won't come close to covering the cost of the coming entitlement spike.

More likely is that veterans benefits will be reviewed and reworked over time and ultimately trimmed, but not overnight. A crushing fiscal reality will take precedence in coming years, as it will with other entitlement and benefit programs. With a towering deficit and debt, there is little recourse for Congress but to trim -- even in sacred territory.

One certainty on this Veterans Day is that Congress and the president will tread gingerly when it comes to the care, trust and public dollars provided to millions of veterans. This territory in the federal budget remains solemn -- not entirely protected but very well defended.




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