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Congress Should Show Real Support for Military, Veterans

There has been no mantra more employed in Washington, D.C., over the past four years than “We support our troops.” But some of those most eager to employ that mantra also have sat by passively while our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered through years of inadequate supplies of body armor, helmet liners and armored vehicles. [IMGCAP(1)]

The excuse, or rationale, of the Defense Department — that we did not have enough companies to produce the body armor in a timely fashion — should have been met with continuing howls of outrage by lawmakers, as well as demands that the situation be changed immediately. If we could mobilize overnight to make massive quantities of planes, tanks and bombs to prepare us to fight the Nazis, there is no earthly reason we could not find a way now to produce appropriate equipment for every man and woman we send into combat zones. The spectacle of “hillbilly armor” — troops scrounging in junk yards to improvise protection, not to mention of private citizens having to join together to get helmet liners for our soldiers because our government could not or would not do so, is an embarrassment.

Partly as a result of the inadequate equipment available for our troops, we have had a large number of wounded veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries, ranging from loss of limbs to serious head trauma. Of course, another factor has been the remarkable advances in emergency medicine and battlefield triage — many, many soldiers who in previous wars would be returning in body bags are coming back with serious injuries, but alive.

As the Walter Reed debacle showed, our agencies have not been prepared for the surge in wounded warriors; the system of care and compensation has been simply dysfunctional, caught in unwieldy bureaucracies, competition and overlap between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and limited or nonexistent accountability.

To President Bush’s credit, after the story broke, he responded to the scandal quickly, appointing a commission headed by former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. He could not have chosen better. Dole and Shalala represent the best of public service, two smart and sensible people who want to solve problems in common-sense ways, finding consensus but looking first to do something achievable and workable, not just something to score points. Both also bring substantive knowledge, credibility and political skills to the table.

So it was no surprise that the Dole-Shalala commission behaved in a fashion unlike most Washington commissions. They did their work efficiently and quickly, and they focused on an immediate-action agenda, not a 100-point, 200-page report that would end up sitting on the shelf. Instead, they had six core recommendations that include major change, but all of it achievable quickly, given some political will.

Many of their recommendations involve executive action. If the first response by the White House was cool, the fact is that after a bit of prodding, the administration has come through in a major way and is moving to do a lot to streamline the care and compensation system for wounded vets. But the recommendations also need action by Congress, and that has been a tougher slog. Among other things, Congress has to act to streamline the whole system of disability payments, making special accommodations for those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, act to extend care and support to family members, alter the relationship between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to make the system work, and ensure that Walter Reed Army Medical Center can operate at full effectiveness with first-class professionals for the next several years.

The Veterans’ Affairs committees in both chambers have paid lip service to the goals of the commission, and both have bills pending, but they have not pushed to implement these changes. A major part of the reason is that many existing veterans organizations have reacted with coldness or hostility to the changes — some don’t want any change, others don’t like the idea of different treatment for this new generation of wounded soldiers.

But the fact is that wars are different, circumstances change, and as Dole, a wounded World War II warrior himself, has said, there are compelling reasons to act in ways that reflect the new environment. Nothing in the commission recommendations will bring adverse changes to injured or disabled veterans of other wars.

It is time for Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the chairmen of the Senate and House committees, to get off the dime and move the bills to implement the commission’s recommendations — if only to show that Washington can respond with something resembling dispatch to show real, not just rhetorical, support for our troops.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.