Larry Scott: Are You Really a Veteran?
Rep. Steve Buyer is redefining your status
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America's Veterans


(March 29, 2005) - Are you really a veteran? Better check it fast. I did. I've got my DD-214 that says "honorable discharge." I've got the red-white-and-blue VA identification card complete with lousy picture and the "service-connected" rating. So, I must be a veteran. Right? Not if Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, has his way.

Buyer is trying to rewrite the definition of "veteran" in a cold and calculated manner that could cost millions of veterans their benefits. Buyer recently won a political tug-of-war and replaced Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) as chairman of HVAC. Smith was known as a true friend of veterans and often broke ranks with his party to forward legislation favorable to the veteran community.

Not so with Buyer. In a recent interview with journalist Tom Philpott, Buyer stated, "While some veterans' organizations like to create a theme, that 'A veteran is a veteran [and] there is no difference,' I disagree."

Shortly after winning the chair at HVAC, Buyer said, "Some of the veterans service organizations, they are having this belief that everyone should have open access to the VA system, when in fact I believe that the VA system should follow its core constituency and the intent of Congress when we laid out our priorities, and that was in fact to take care of our disabled and indigent veterans first." (This subject was covered in my article on "Welfarizing the VA.")

So, what is happening here? Buyer is trying to redefine "veteran," and in so doing, reshape benefit programs to meet his new definition. In short, this means fewer benefits for fewer veterans.

The two keys here are Buyer's references to "intent of Congress" and "core constituency." By rejecting the "intent of Congress" when they passed legislation defining benefits and eligibility, Buyer is telling us Congress was wrong and he is going to change it. By referring to the VA's "core constituency" as "disabled and indigent veterans," he is eliminating veterans who do not fall into those categories.

What's really on the table when it comes to redefining a veteran and available benefits? Buyer says, "I think everything should be on the table."

Everything! Buyer is even suggesting that service-connected disabilities be combat-related only. This would eliminate treatment and compensation for injuries received while on active duty but not directly related to combat.

Buyer also took aim at the veterans' service organizations, saying their view that all veterans should have access to VA healthcare abandons values like duty and sacrifice. He chided the service organizations for using inflammatory rhetoric. "I asked them to be very careful with the words they select because ... they have an impact all over the country. It is upsetting to me when someone refers to veterans as whiney," Buyer stated.

Well, there you have it in his own words. The chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee calling our service organizations "whiney" and accusing them of abandoning values like duty and sacrifice.

It would be easy to dismiss Buyer as part of some lunatic fringe on Capitol Hill trying to stick it to veterans. But that is not the case. Buyer speaks for the majority in Congress who speak for the current administration.

And, Buyer is the one guilty of inflammatory rhetoric. Demeaning our service organizations and their attempts to preserve veterans' benefits is a slap in the face to ALL veterans. Our service organizations have, in the past, often done too little too late. Sometimes we wondered where they were as the VA budget took hit after hit. Now they find themselves in the position of doing what they were meant to do and being castigated for it.

Fellow veterans, if this is not a call to action, I don't know what is. We cannot allow Congress to redefine who is a veteran. We cannot allow Congress to restructure veterans' benefits and reshape the definitions of disability. We have worked too hard for too long to not receive proper recognition for our service to our country.

It's time to put severe pressure on Congress. Recently 400 disabled veterans did just that when they jammed Committee hearings, booing and jeering Buyer and others who want to cut benefits. This new level of activism must increase if we are to preserve our benefits and guarantee a properly funded VA for the veterans of the future.

In 1789 President George Washington said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars and how they were treated and appreciated by this country."

If we do nothing now we will only be able to say that we did nothing.