Veteran benefits not under attack

Some of us, when we see a proposal to raise VA health care fees for a category of veteran in a report on ways to curb federal budget deficits, jump to the conclusion that veteran benefits are under fresh attack.

Bernard Rostker, former under secretary of defense for personnel and now a senior fellow at the RAND Corp., has a more optimistic perspective on how, over time, America cares for and compensates its wartime veterans.

For more than a year Rostker has been researching what will be a two-volume study on the treatment of veterans and their survivors, going back to before the Revolutionary War, with a special focus on wounded warrior care.

His original working premise, as he explained it in a phone interview, was that veterans’ care and benefits today reflect a deeper attachment to the force, the result of moving away from a military of conscripts, after the Vietnam War, to a more professional force comprised entirely of volunteers.

But as he completed volume one of his study, covering the Colonial era through World War II, Rostker said he found the working premise to be wrong. Much of what’s being done today for veterans of the all-volunteer force is “rediscovering” what’s been done before.

One glaring exception, he said, is the focus today on treating mental wounds of war, post-traumatic stress disorder. Resources aimed at the invisible wounds are unprecedented, reflecting more medical knowledge, the nature of current wars and an attitude shift, even since the Persian Gulf War.

In the late 1990s he was the defense secretary’s special assistant on Gulf War Illness. Otherwise the infusion of money and staff for veterans’ care and benefits today fits an historical pattern, Rostker said, the nation’s deep appreciation for those who fight for country and suffer wounds or illness.

Other patterns emerge, Rostker said. Government support tends to deepen with budget surpluses. Benefits tend to improve as veterans age, their ranks thin out, and enhancements become more affordable.

Wars bring change too. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget has more than doubled since U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 — from $51 billion then to $114 billion in the fiscal years that ended Sept. 30. VA spending is set to climb another 10 percent this year, to $125 billion.

Vet groups laud a 25 percent rise in VA spending since President Obama took office. Some contrast that largess to the Bush administration difficulty in June 2005 when it had to request $2 billion supplemental for VA to meet pressing health care obligations. Some veterans groups had called the original budget that year “tightfisted, miserly” and “woefully inadequate.”

Given the history, I asked, what might be ahead for the newest generation of war veterans. More effective help, Rostker suggested. The nation knows now that not all wounded have missing limbs or physical scars.

Through history, he said, “you see the generosity in many ways. You see it in the amount of money given, in the change of eligibility standards. And recently in the understanding of the mental aspects of conflict.”