WASHINGTON — As the impact on veterans becomes part of the contentious debate over the government shutdown, the commander of one of the nation’s leading veterans organizations said Friday that they should not become a political “pawn” for warring lawmakers.
In a press conference in front of the barricaded World War II Memorial, American Legion Commander Daniel Dellinger said that the veterans are concerned about the shutdown’s impact on their benefits and services, which he said “transcend politics.”
“You cannot use American veterans or servicemen and -women as pawns in this issue,” Dellinger said. “Veterans earn their benefits through their honorable service, many of them seriously disabled as a result of that service. To threaten suspension of their benefits is not only absurd, it’s cruel.”
His remarks came in a week when several Honor Flights of World War II veterans from various states made pilgrimages to the memorial. Some had to overcome barricades outside the memorial to pay homage to the war they fought seven decades ago.
The closing of the memorial, as well as other national monuments and sites operated by the National Parks Service, triggered anger on Capitol Hill, where veterans issues usually provoke an outpouring of patriotic political rhetoric. Lawmakers from both parties hastened down to the memorial this week to greet the veterans and stake out positions on the shutdown.
“I just think it’s outrageous, and I think people realize that it’s not sustainable to deny these folks who might have their last chance to come to this monument,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Friday.
Against that backdrop, Dellinger said that the veterans who visit the site don’t care about politics but are only there to honor the price that many have paid to secure the nation’s freedom. An Honor Flight with veterans from Texas was scheduled for a visit Friday afternoon.
Among the American Legion’s prime concerns was the disruption of a decade-long concern about the claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The shutdown has already brought an end to mandatory overtime for VA claims processors, who were finally making progress, Dellinger said.
“The inability of Congress to achieve a solution stands to unravel all that hard-earned progress,” he said.
In a government shutdown guide, the VA states that claims processing and payments in the compensation program would likely continue through late October. However, it would be suspended in the event of a prolonged shutdown due to exhaustion of funds, it stated.
Assistant VA Secretary Tommy Sowers tweeted Friday that the backlog and pending claims went up, representing a reverse in the latest trend.
While veterans crisis lines will not be impacted by a lapse in funds, according to the VA, Dellinger said he was concerned about the fallout on veterans hospitals, clinics and call centers.
“Veterans should not have to suffer over Congress’ inability to do its job,” he said.