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I’ve searched high and low for a promise made to veterans. I can’t find it. Surely, it must exist. From George Washington to George Bush, we have reams of flowery rhetoric praising the good deeds of those who have served in the U.S. military. But, where is the promise?

Washington said the nation owes veterans a “debt of honor.” Bush often speaks of “honor,” “support” and “compassion” in speeches about veterans. In between, Abraham Lincoln said our mission is “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan…” All of this sounds good, but it’s not a promise.

The elusive promise to veterans has been used by politicians since the earliest days of our republic to raise armies to fight wars and to pass legislation to care for veterans when they come home from those wars. But, what actually was promised?

It’s a simple fact: that nothing was promised to veterans. There was no promise made, so there’s nothing to keep and nothing to break. It’s the great American myth; an urban legend of epic proportions.

This myth is promulgated by politicians who want us to think they are keeping a promise to veterans or want us to think some other politician isn’t keeping a promise. A quick Google search will show thousands of entries about a promise to veterans. Many are from those claiming to keep the promise. Others are from those who loudly declare the promise is not being kept. But, nowhere will you find exactly what this promise might be.

So, why do we believe there’s a promise to veterans? Because we want to believe it. We want to believe that our country will care and provide for those who have given years of their lives to military service. We desperately want to believe that our country will care for those who return from the fields of battle with physical and emotional wounds. Anything else would not fit the standards we have set for ourselves as Americans.

However, the truth is something different.

Veterans of the Civil War have left us volumes of their post-war battles with the Commissioner of Pensions who parceled out medical care and disability compensation. One document tells of a veteran’s struggle with the Commissioner to get a wooden leg to replace the real leg he’d lost in combat. After years of denials, he carved the leg himself.

Military retirees of the World War II era were under the assumption they would have free, life-time healthcare at military hospitals. Those hospitals were closed. And now, the retirees find themselves in a HMO.

Vietnam veterans fought for years to get benefits for exposure to Agent Orange. Now, many of them who served in the “Blue Water Navy” find their adversary is the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) who is in Federal Court trying to deny them benefits.

Our new veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves faced with military and VA healthcare systems that are underfunded, overcrowded and incapable of caring for their needs.

All of these veterans thought there was a promise and found out otherwise.

Veterans have been accepting the constantly-changing hodge-podge of laws and regulations that, sometimes, provide disability compensation and care. And, “sometimes” is the operative word. A check of federal regulations covering veterans’ benefits shows an abundant use of the phrase “the Secretary may.” The “Secretary” is the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs who “may” or may NOT provide the benefit listed in the specific regulation.

But, could there be a promise to veterans buried somewhere in mountains of laws or hidden deep in the recesses of the Federal Code? The Herculean effort to see if such a promise existed was undertaken by David F. Burelli, a National Defense Specialist for the Congressional Research Service. Burelli’s research paper is titled Military Health Care: The Issue of “Promised” Benefits. The 23-page paper makes this determination: “Many…military retirees…state that they were promised ‘free health care for life at military facilities’ as part of their ‘contractual agreement’ when they entered the armed forces. Efforts to locate authoritative documentation of such promises have not been successful. Congressional report language and recent court decisions have rejected retiree claims [of] a right or entitlement.” While Burelli’s paper deals with military retirees, it can be extrapolated to include non-retiree veterans, as well.

Others, realizing Burelli’s findings to be accurate, have tried to reframe the language of a promise to veterans. Dave Autry of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) likes to use the concept of a “moral obligation” to veterans. That high-minded verbiage has been used thousands of times by politicians, authors and veterans’ advocates. But, it still doesn’t equate to a promise. And, it assumes that Congress, who supplies funding for veterans’ care and disability compensation, understands what is “moral” and has the fortitude to commit to an “obligation.” Those are two dangerous assumptions.

But, this verbal posturing leaves us where we began. There is no promise to veterans. The government can’t keep a promise that was never made. And, it’s not realistic to assume that they are breaking a promise they never made.

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Larry Scott served four years in the U.S. Army with overseas tours as a Broadcast Journalist in Korea and the Azores and a stateside tour as a Broadcast Journalism Instructor at the Defense Information School (DINFOS). He was awarded DOD's First Place Thomas Jefferson Award for (more...)
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