Commentary: Expanding care for war veterans a must

A former soldier once adamantly argued in an e-mail to me that no one can really be "against the war" but "for the troops."

I disagreed, banking on a higher level of empathy among non-military citizenry who also hold passionate views on war.

Still, I'll concede a few points to that Vietnam veteran and VA volunteer. He was speaking largely about the experience of the Vietnam War vets, and also as a supporter of George W. Bush.

But with the war in Iraq now on a timeline for closure under the new administration, we're on the cusp of a new era of welcoming soldiers home. For my generation, the animosity experienced by the Vietnam soldiers is difficult to fathom. It's a lesson learned, a mistake the country isn't likely to repeat.

Besides, another big test of being "for" veterans – how the Department of Veterans Affairs reacts to their needs – is about to improve in terms of numbers served here.

New satellite clinics should open in Excelsior Springs and Trenton, Mo., by the end of the year. Another site has been requested, but is not yet approved, for Johnson County. Those sites will join ones already in Warrensburg, Cameron, Belton and Nevada in Missouri and one in Paola, Kan.

A new clinic for blind soldiers needing rehabilitation also has been approved.

At the same time, VA centers nationally are readying for a long-sought expansion of veterans receiving benefits. Benefits are calculated on need, judging the degree of disability and the soldier’s income. Vets with higher incomes and without injuries were a lower priority and got slashed from VA funding in 2003 because of budget constraints.

But by most people's views, the vets in question are hardly high-income. With the economy sliding, more may soon join their ranks. For years, members of Congress argued for adding those soldiers back into care.

By late June, VA centers are expected to be able to enroll these previously ineligible veterans – an estimated 266,000 people nationwide.

And ongoing efforts are attempting to reach as many new veterans as possible.

Kansas City VA staffer Glenna Greer has scoured rural parts of the region from the back of her husband's motorcycle, attempting to get the word out.

She took fliers, hoping to convince Iraq war veterans who don't think they need help to sign up anyway. It's a hard argument, Greer said, to convince a healthy 25-year-old former reservist of care he or she may need and not be able to afford 30 years into the future.

They have five years (it used to be two) from the time they return from combat to sign up. That will qualify them for care if they ever need it later in life.

Veterans Affairs probably will be affected by the vast numbers of aging baby boomers, the unknown duration of post-traumatic stress disorders and fewer health-care options being offered by employers. But I'd say the more enrolled the better, especially if the higher numbers also produce pressure for continually raising the quality of care.

Wise souls have always argued the cost of caring for returning soldiers should be factored into the costs of starting a war.

And some of the most poignant commentary arguing for more veterans to receive care came in recent years from the American Legion.

In 2007, Peter S. Gaytan, an American Legion director, testified before Congress, saying:

"A viable VA is one that cares for all eligible veterans, not just the most severely wounded or the poorest among us. … This nation's veterans have never let our country down; Congress should do its best to not let them down."

Even those who are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq should agree.

HOW TO GET HELPVeterans can contact the VA's Health Benefits Service Center at 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or go to www.va.gov/healtheligibility.