The war in Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan and other military operations around the world are pushing veterans issues back to the forefront of the minds of Americans — and their political candidates.
Missouri’s 9th Congressional District U.S. House of Representatives candidates — Republican incumbent Kenny Hulshof, Democrat Duane Burghard, Progressive Party nominee Bill Hastings and Libertarian Steven Hedrick — talk about what the government should do for veterans and troops overseas.
Hastings said that if the U.S. implemented the universal health care plan that he advocates, veterans would be covered as well.
As a psychologist, Hastings said he sees the assessment of psychological problems as an important aspect of caring for troops when they return, but noted that it’s very difficult.
“Psychological problems are not as categorizable as physical ones,” he said. “They’re harder to demonstrate and easier to confuse; they’re very amorphous. But we do know that killing people is bad for both the victim and the victimizer, and it changes people for the worse.”
In addition, he said data shows that veterans of previous wars had more problems than others their age. He suspects the same will be true for veterans of this war.
“Often these problems get confounded with other problems, such as poverty or race, so our government doesn’t attribute their cause to the war,” Hastings said.
Hedrick supports a move for more coverage and less expensive health care for veterans, but he disagrees with Hastings’ proposal of a universal health care system.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” he said. “It seems kind of far-fetched to me.”
Hastings also said that the troops’ contribution isn’t respected enough. He said the government should be more responsible in protecting them, especially in regard to depleted uranium in Iraq.
The military uses depleted uranium for enhanced armor protection for some Abrams tanks, armor-piercing munitions, and as stabilizers for airplanes and boats. According to the World Heath Organization, exposure to depleted uranium is relatively harmless as long as it remains outside the body. Inhaling or digesting depleted uranium, however, may cause damage to the lungs and kidneys.
Burghard said he also has concerns about the use of depleted uranium.
“It’s all in the ground in Iraq,” he said. “Only one government study has been performed on uranium’s effects on troops, and it was only done on 32 soldiers. How many soldiers have been fighting in both Iraqi wars? Over 900,000.”
Burghard said veterans issues are one of his top priorities. He said his main concern was for the government to be more responsible.
“We shouldn’t commit our troops for combat without a formal declaration of war,” he said, “or without the proper materials they need to defend themselves.”
Burghard said that at the beginning of the war, Congress committed troops to the effort without providing adequate body armor. When troops bought their own body armor, the government initially refused to reimburse the troops for their purchase, he said.
Burghard added that Congress has also cut funding by half for the 2007 fiscal year for a traumatic brain injury research center and denied health coverage for Army Reservists and National Guard members. Burghard wants to restore this funding and add health coverage.
“Anyone who serves in combat, in uniform, for our country, should be covered by TRICARE,” he said, referring to the military health plan.
More cuts for veteran funding are slated in the budget over the next five years, Burghard said. He wants to stop them. The cuts would total $10 billion and affect medical construction and medical and prosthetic research.
“There have been less deaths in this war and more injuries,” he said. This means that the U.S. will need more long-term care for our troops, he said. “It’s our moral responsibility.”
Burghard said he also believes that the privatization of certain military functions is endangering the lives of troops, citing a particular incident on Dec. 22, 2004, when a bomb exploded at a mess hall, killing 22 people and injuring many more.
“Our food service has been outsourced to Haliburton,” he said. “For the sake of efficiency and profit, our troops are forced to congregate at mess halls, making them an easy target. This violates the rules of war. Our government is valuing profit over the lives of troops.”
Hulshof said he strongly disagrees with Burghard’s caricature of the war.
“Making sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources they need is vitally important to our nation’s security,” he said. “Ensuring that our troops in the field have the resources and flexibility they need to complete their mission and return home safely is of the highest importance.”
Sufficient training, in addition to resources, is also needed, he said, to keep the U.S. military “the best-equipped, best-trained fighting force in the world.”
He said the veterans budget increased by 77 percent since 1995, and federal funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased by over $30 billion since 1997.
“We have a responsibility to honor the brave men and women who have sacrificed for our freedom,” Hulshof said.