Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Support the troops"? What's that mean?

In 1983, I joined the Air Force because of the educational benefits (and, yeah, because I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life at the time); I'd only planned to stay in for one tour. By the time that tour was up, though, I had a wife and two kids, and having a good health plan seemed like the way to go. So I reenlisted.

My second tour ended and I still had the wife, but now I had three kids. Staying in seemed like a much better idea. And by the time that enlistment ended, I had been in the military twelve years - over halfway to retirement.

The military pays the troops less than they would get doing the same job in the civilian world. If it hadn't been for the benefits, there isn't a chance in hell that I would have stayed in, and my attitude wasn't unique. It's almost universal among the enlisted members. (There are some rare exceptions, of course, and officers may be a different story - they're paid significantly more money than the grunts.) If you cut the benefits, your all-volunteer military is going to collapse.

So, what the hell is going on here?
Republicans and Democrats alike are signaling a willingness — unheard of at the height of two post-Sept. 11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to make military retirees pay more for coverage. It's a reflection of Washington's newfound embrace of fiscal austerity and the Pentagon's push to cut health care costs that have skyrocketed from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion.

The numbers are daunting for a military focused on building and arming an all-volunteer force for war. The Pentagon is providing health care coverage for 3.3 million active duty personnel and their dependents and 5.5 million retirees, eligible dependents and surviving spouses. Retirees outnumber the active duty, 2.3 million to 1.4 million.
And some changes are already happening.

We pay a little more to get the Trophy Wife's prescriptions from Walgreens. They'd be free if I got them from the base hospital, but my wife works with Opera Unlimited, travelling across New Mexico to help music programs in elementary schools. If she is 500 miles away, and runs out of, say, Zetia (a heart medication) or Losartin/HCTZ (for blood pressure), Walgreens will get her an emergency supply to hold her over until she gets back to Albuquerque: their database clearly shows what she's taking and how often, and every Walgreens in the country can pull that information up.

But that's apparently going to change in January, because Walgreens and Express Scripts are locked in a contract dispute which may prevent Walgreens from handling prescriptions for Tricare, the Defense Department plan managed by Express Scripts.

But that's just an inconvenience. Thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, we're getting more injured veterans pouring into the system than we have since Vietnam. And despite the challenges of readjusting to civilian life, they haven't been getting the help they need for years.

Plus, thanks to advances in both military and medical technology, more soldiers are surviving worse wounds than ever before. So, not only do they need more medical care, but their needs are only going to get worse as they get older.

The Pentagon estimates that as many as one in five soldiers are coming home from war zones with traumatic brain injuries, and current studies show that studies show that even a slight trauma to the brain doubles your chance of developing dementia later in life, meaning that many will need around-the-clock care.

Assuming that they can get any help at all.
Marine Cpl. James Dixon was wounded twice in Iraq -- by a roadside bomb and a land mine. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, a concussion, a dislocated hip and hearing loss. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Sgt. Lori Meshell shattered a hip and crushed her back and knees while diving for cover during a mortar attack in Iraq. She has undergone a hip replacement and knee reconstruction and needs at least three more surgeries.

In each case, the Pentagon ruled that their disabilities were not combat-related.

In a little-noticed regulation change in March, the military's definition of combat-related disabilities was narrowed, costing some injured veterans thousands of dollars in lost benefits -- and triggering outrage from veterans' advocacy groups.
But we have to cut expenses, right? We have to decrease spending somewhere, and defense spending is one of the larger chunks of the federal budget.

Well, funny you should mention that.

The 2012 military budget includes 134 billion dollars for equipment, but also includes almost 81 billion dollars in research for new weapons systems. You know, I think we kill people well enough already; ask the Iraqi people. (You know, the ones who are left...)

But how much good is that 81 billion dollars doing us, anyway?
Despite improvements, more than half of the Pentagon’s big weapons systems still cost more than they should, with management failures adding at least $70 billion to the projected costs over the last two years, government auditors said Tuesday.

The Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog, said the biggest program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, accounted for $28 billion of that increase. Other systems also had significant cost overruns, the agency said, adding that the increases could force the Pentagon to cut the number of ships and planes it buys.

The auditors said many of the problems occurred because the Pentagon began building the systems before the designs were fully tested.
In August of this year, Congress finished a comprehensive look at spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In its final report to Congress, the Commission on Wartime Contracting said the figure could grow as U.S. support for reconstruction projects and programs wanes, leaving both countries to bear the long-term costs of sustaining the schools, medical clinics, barracks, roads and power plants already built with American tax dollars.

Much of the waste and fraud could have been avoided with better planning and more aggressive oversight, the commission said. To avoid repeating the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, government agencies should overhaul the way they award and manage contracts in war zones, the commission recommended.
The commission said calculating the exact amount lost through waste and fraud is difficult because there is no commonly accepted methodology for doing so. But using information it has gathered over the past three years, the commission said at least $31 billion has been lost and the total could be as high as $60 billion. The commission called the estimate "conservative."
But that's OK. That's only the money we've lost in foreign countries.
How often does the Pentagon award contracts to defense companies that have already been proven to be defrauding taxpayers? A report the Department of Defense did at the request of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reveals an answer that should make Washington very uncomfortable.

The report, released today, showed that hundreds of defense contractors found guilty of civil fraud received more than $1.1 trillion in defense contracts since 2001. The study took into account only companies that were found to have defrauded taxpayers of more than $1 million dollars.

More than $573 billion went directly to companies that were guilty of defrauding taxpayers, and when you factor in the awards that went to the parent companies of those contractors, the total is $1.1 trillion. Of that $573 billion, more than two-thirds—$398 billion—went to companies after they had been found guilty of fraud.
So maybe there's a few places out there where we can save money.

But as to the veterans, it's simple morality.

We have an all-volunteer military, but it goes both ways. When they sign on, they put, not just their lives, but their bodies, in harm's way. And if these brave men and women get hurt fighting for their country, we have an obligation to take care of them. For the rest of their lives, if necessary.

If you don't want to pay for wounded veterans, there's only one answer: stop making them. Stop sending soldiers to distant countries, where they risk their lives for some political agenda.

You don't get a choice on this. If you're going to play, you've got to pay; if you don't like it, get out of the game.

1 comment:

Gene Autery said...

A little older than you but with same views. Only stayed 10 years but did 512 Days in Nam. I left because I figured that our good Uncle really wasn't going to take care of us the way we should be. enjoyed reading you other missives, Cynics unite!

Gene Autery