- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

Dear Sgt. Shaft:

I have reintroduced the Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act in the 109th Congress, H.R. 602. This bipartisan bill addresses recent developments and offers meaningful remedies to the “broken promise” of health care for military retirees.

We have sent thousands of troops to do battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are creating a new generation of veterans who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country. For generations, recruits for military service were promised by their own government that if they served a career of 20 years in uniform, then they and their dependents would receive health care upon retirement.

But while these career soldiers put their lives on the line for our country, the government did not keep its end of the contract.

The courts have laid to rest the question of who is responsible for making good on promises of lifetime health care that were made to young men and women who joined the service during World War II and the Korean era, only to find that Congress had enacted laws after they signed up that resulted in a dramatic reduction in health care benefits.

Although a federal appeals court ruled against military retirees in November 2002 on a technicality, arguing that promises by recruiters were invalid because only Congress could authorize military health care, I believe the retirees won their moral battle on principle because the court acknowledged the injustice of their case.

As the court said: “The promise of such health care was made in good faith and relied upon. … Perhaps Congress will consider using its legal power to address the moral claim.”

It is ironic that American soldiers are fighting — and dying — for freedom in Iraq while American veterans and military retirees have to fight for health care to which they are rightfully entitled.

Military retirees are understandably outraged by comments made by Dr. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, that demonstrate a callous disregard for their past service and sacrifice. In a Jan. 25 article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Chu, discussing federal dollars obligated to health care for our veterans and military retirees, was quoted as saying, “The amounts have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself.”

Military retirees and their families, who have been misled by empty promises in the past, see the root of the dilemma in Dr. Chu’s words: that they have served their purpose to America and are no longer needed, that they — who served a career in uniform to protect our freedoms — are now looked upon as a burden on society, that they have been used up and thrown away like an old worn-out paper bag.

That is why senators and congressmen have received thousands of brown paper bags in the mail, with messages written on them urging Congress to pass the Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act. I am told that, as of today, military retirees and their families and supporters have sent over 20,000 paper bags to Congress and that more are arriving every day.

The Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act offers more meaningful restitution for broken promises by waiving the premium that World War II and Korean-era military retirees must pay to enroll in Medicare Part B, a requirement of Tricare for Life.

The courts have ruled. It is up to Congress to make good on the promises that were made — and broken — to our military retirees. They are not asking for handouts — they ask only for what was promised to them and what they earned. We must do right by our military retirees. We need to enact into law the important provisions of the Keep Our Promise to America’s Military Retirees Act.

Sincerely,

Rep. Chris Van Hollen

Maryland Democrat

Dear Chris:

Many military retirees are in fact joining your worthwhile efforts by writing their members of Congress on brown bags. Military retirees and other veterans should not be treated like brown bags, discarded after one uses them.

Shaft notes

Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen have created an epic story about the Bonus Army, a story that begins in the trenches of World War I and ends with the passage of the GI Bill of Rights.

The men of the Bonus Army were united in their demand for a long-promised “bonus” for wartime service. They rode boxcars and hitchhiked to the District to lobby for their bonus and were driven out by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops using tear gas and bayonets. They got their bonus after a struggle — a tradition that reverberates today, for a victorious army’s valor in battle often has no value in peacetime.

The authors will be appearing at a book signing today at the National Press Club.

Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, PO Box 65900, Washington, D.C., 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330; call 202/257- 5446; or e-mail [email protected] org.


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