Commentary: It's time to do right by our troops

Wonders never cease! There we were, well down the road to naming the presidential nominees for both major parties, without any of the candidates addressing anything but peripheral finger-pointing nonsense and the daily media-generated crisis, when suddenly a real and serious issue — veterans benefits in a time of war — has bubbled up.

The questions, as noted before in this space, center around a proposal to improve GI Bill college benefits so that today’s troops returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan might receive the same level of support that their grandfathers received after World War II.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., which has drawn broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, would do precisely that: Provide new veterans with sufficient money to pay the tuitions charged by state-run universities, plus a modest stipend for living expenses.

Both the Democratic candidates support Webb’s bill, but the presumed Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has sided with a penny-pinching White House and Pentagon and so finds himself inexplicably on the wrong side of an issue that touches the lives of so many of the troops that he and President Bush claim they support.

How can this be? How can a man who is, himself, a fourth-generation Annapolis graduate and retired naval officer who draws a tax-free 100 percent disability pension, find himself opposing something so right?

Bush, the Pentagon and McCain all say that we can’t afford to be too generous to today’s veterans because if we improve their education benefits, too many of them would opt for life on a college campus instead of re-enlisting and doing another two or three combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They cite a study that estimates that if the college benefit were improved 16 percent then more troops would decide to leave the military at the end of their first tours of duty. They don’t talk about the other finding of that same study: That improved college benefits would entice an additional 16 percent to enlist in the first place.

They also neglect to mention that the Army knows that 70 percent of those who enlist will do one tour and return to civilian life when it's over _ unless they get trapped by a stop-loss order that involuntarily extends their time in uniform by 12 to 18 months and sends them into combat again.

So improving the GI Bill really poses no great threat to enlistments in the all-volunteer military, and the arguments of Bush, McCain and the Pentagon brass don’t hold water.

Which brings us to the overriding question: Why have this administration and its Republican stalwarts in Congress rejected every attempt to improve benefits and pay for our troops and our veterans when we're fighting two wars — one of them a war of choice — that began on their watch?

Why do the very people who start and end every speech with “Support the Troops” and “God bless the troops” — politicians who make their patriotic speeches on military bases using the troops as a photo-op backdrop — find it so hard to do the right thing for those proud few who do all the suffering and sacrificing on all of our behalf?

How can they stand silent while the behavior of bureaucrats in the very agency that supposedly is dedicated to caring for veterans in need, the Veterans Administration, grows more indefensible, unjust and outrageous?

How can a man like John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war whose own higher education at the Naval Academy was government-paid, side with the bean-counters at the Pentagon and the service avoiders who inhabit the White House, and against fellow congressional veterans Jim Webb, Chuck Hagel and John Warner?

Justice and decency demand that McCain do the right thing and execute a smart about-face on this issue, especially since he's signed on to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely and send many thousands more of those volunteer troops into the Hell that is combat.

Justice and decency demand that McCain, the president and the administration slap some sense into those who allow _ or encourage _ VA bureaucrats to hide the true number of veterans who commit suicide, many of them doubtless because of the endless waiting times to obtain mental health care, or the even longer waiting time on their claims for disability benefits, or the processing backlogs on the current cheap GI Bill that cause thousands to drop out in disgust.

While the political campaigns are fleetingly focused on a real issue for a change, now is the time for all three candidates to debate that issue and to decide that the best thing for our country is to do the right thing, right now, for a great young generation of volunteer troops who're fighting Mr. Bush’s wars while the rest of us are down at the mall.

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