- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

The battle for Fallujah in Iraq had just begun and Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi spoke passionately to reporters about the need to improve services to those who return maimed for life either physically or mentally to join their dwindling number of comrades afflicted in other conflicts.

He noted anti-insurgency warfare, when any innocuous doorway or innocent-looking child may pose a death threat, carries far greater stress than traditional combat between uniformed troops. This type of combat produces anguish that requires special and costly treatment. If help is not forthcoming, veterans can be left more debilitated than than had they lost an arm or a leg.

Mr. Principi, a former Navy officer and Vietnam veteran, spoke of the urgent need to extend insurance coverage to the families of men and women with catastrophic injuries, not just families of fatalities. The financial needs are often greater in caring for their injured sons and daughters, husbands and wives, than those who endure the initial shock of a loved one’s death, are paid $250,000 and then carry on.

Mr. Principi’s remarks came on the eve of Veterans Day and were especially poignant and dramatic when juxtaposed against headlines that disclosed compensation to surviving relatives of the victims of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks received made them wealthy far beyond the dreams of most Americans. The average for families of civilians killed in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and in the airline crash in Pennsylvania that horrible day is $3.1 million. For survivors of uniformed police and firefighters, the average is $4.2 million.

In all, the payout for business and individuals by insurance, taxpayers and charity was estimated at $38 billion. A whopping $7 billion was paid by the Victims Compensation Fund (i.e., by the taxpayers) established by Congress to prevent devastating suits against U.S. airlines. There also, of course, was a sizable contribution from private charity as millions of Americans opened their hearts and wallets for billions of dollars more. Insurance companies paid out about $16 billion.

Staggering as the sums are, they jar less than the fact Americans can suddenly become fabulously rich off such tragedies, that the families of a mail-room clerk or a multimillionaire executive who were in the wrong place at the wrong time have benefited so much from their deaths.

It is even more disturbing when one remembers all the victims and their survivors of all the wars and other disasters who, as Mr. Principi said, never asked for a penny. It is as if their sacrifices were incidental or trivial compared to those of September 11.

If terrorism is the key, what about those whose lives were shockingly disrupted by the Oklahoma City bombing? Must terrorism originate overseas before this sort of compensation is deemed appropriate?

Money certainly can’t replace the losses suffered on September 11, 2001. Those victims’ families need and deserve more than mere sympathy. But how much more should they get before the compensation becomes a ludicrous bribe to protect a crucial industry from devastation in a courtroom? How patriotic are the victims that would even consider such a thing? Just how wise was Congress to create such a precedent?

My daughter-in-law was but a child when her father, a Vietnam veteran suffering from one of the first recognized cases of combat trauma, took his own life one afternoon despite extended treatment. My daughter-in-law and her sister and mother were devastated. But they never demanded or received compensation for their loss, as clearly linked to the war as if he had been killed in the jungle.

Mr. Principi wants to change some of that so American veterans can be considered as worthy as those who put in claims for exposure to dust and other possible health hazards near Ground Zero and got $660 million, $380 million for it from the U.S. Treasury, tax-free.

What is the difference between someone whose son or daughter dies in Iraq and another whose husband or wife or son or daughter died on September 11? Both, after all, are victims of that hideous event —but for which we wouldn’t be in Iraq. Shouldn’t we now make the treatment equal?

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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