Honoring Veterans on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on the current conflict in Iraq. Given the thousands of American dead (and tens to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead) due to the invasion, many will be seeking a proper way to memorialize the occasion. I personally recommend viewing the documentary Alive Day Memories, full of extraordinary stories of the post-war resilience of those who served among those we remember today. (For those pressed for time, the story of the former gymnast who is now a triple amputee is first in the documentary, and is particularly compelling–as is the story of the mother now taking care of a son severely brain-damaged by shrapnel.) The Brian Lehrer show also showcased two books today: Mary Tillman’s Boots on the Ground by Dusk: The Remarkable Life and Death of Pat Tillman, and Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives–which follows the “man responsible for the Marines’ casualty notification–informing families that their loved one has died in combat.”

In addition to these remembrances, a Memorial Day might properly include some advocacy for basic changes in the administrative law governing veterans’ benefits. Many Iraq War veterans are now trapped in a Kafka-esque bureaucratic maze once they return home from combat and attempt to get benefits. Huge caseload backlogs have led to ever more stress and strain for veterans seeking basic care they are due. According to one advocate, “Some two-thirds of the VA’s initial [denials] are typically found to be in error by the court, but rather than overturning the decision and ordering payment of benefits, the court usually sends the appeal back to the VA to take a second look.” Given the huge number of meritorious claims that are initially (and sometimes repeatedly) denied, Linda Bilmes proposes an elegant solution to the problem:

The best solution might be to simplify the process — by adopting something closer to the way the IRS deals with tax returns. The VBA could simply approve all veterans’ claims as they are filed – at least to a certain minimum level — and then audit a sample of them to weed out and deter fraudulent claims. At present, nearly 90 percent of claims are approved. VBA claims specialists could then be redeployed to assist veterans in making claims, especially at VA’s “Vet Centers.” This startlingly easy switch would ensure that the US no longer leaves disabled veterans to fend for themselves.

Like the “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer described in a religious setting, there is a “cheap patriotism” that would honor soldiers while denying them benefits they are due. We already have a model for finding the funding that would be necessary:

A bill to expand education benefits to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – paid for by a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans – passed the House [in mid-May]. [The bill] increases an individual’s taxes by a half-percent on all income above $500,000 and would generate an estimated $56 billion over ten years.

Given how unlikely it is that folks from this income bracket are heavily represented among ground troops, it makes sense to spread the burden of the war in this direction.

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