- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner is rushing from a staff meeting at his Capitol Hill office to the House floor to cast a vote against President Obama’s funding request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the while beaming as he reminisces about the billions of dollars in benefits he has championed for veterans of those and earlier wars.

There is the new GI Bill education benefits and home-loan programs for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and the overdue compensation the House recently approved for World War II-era Philippine soldiers and U.S. merchant mariners, said Mr. Filner, 66.

“That’s a great accomplishment, I think, for this Congress,” the California Democrat said as he walked briskly through the Capitol’s corridors toward the House chamber.

He would come out on the short end of a lopsided 368-60 vote approving the $97 billion supplemental spending bill for the wars. He was among 51 mostly antiwar Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama’s defense request.

A lifelong pacifist and old pro at nonviolent protests against war and civil injustice, Mr. Filner never served in the military. His pacifist political philosophy began to take shape when as a boy of 13 he met Martin Luther King.

At 19, he joined the civil rights advocates Freedom Riders and was jailed in Mississippi for months, his case ultimately going to the Supreme Court and playing a role in overturning segregation laws.

At the Capitol, he said there was nothing incongruous about his antiwar and pro-veteran views.

“I was against the Vietnam War. I was against the war in Iraq,” he said. “But I say to my party … that, no matter where we stand on the [Iraq] war, we’ve got to make sure every man and woman that comes back from that war gets all the care, the help, the love, the attention that a nation should give.”

He has vowed not to allow the United States to repeat the neglect that he says was inflicted on veterans of the Vietnam War and said he takes that commitment to heart since taking over the House veterans panel in 2007.

“We made a terrible mistake, as a nation [as well as] those of us who were against the war, because we did not distinguish between the war and the warrior,” Mr. Filner said. “We did not treat [properly] those who came back from Vietnam, and they provide us with the best reason why we can’t fail with our new veterans.”

He rattled off a list of statistics from the Vietnam era that he is determined to avoid repeating with the new generations of veterans.

“Half of the homeless on the street tonight are Vietnam vets. That’s a terrible indictment of our society that we did not take care of them. Even worse maybe, deaths by suicide of Vietnam vets are higher than the deaths in the original war. It’s over 58,000,” he said.

“That’s a horrible, horrible tragedy. And it means we did not do our job.”

The cornerstone of a renewed commitment to veterans was laid with last year’s so-called Post-9/11 GI Bill,” the most comprehensive education benefits package since the original GI Bill was signed into law in 1944.

“We have an obligation to get [veterans] back into the mainstream, make sure you have education, make sure you can buy a house,” Mr. Filner said. “It’s just an obligation that we figured out in 1944, and we should keep going with it.”

The new package, signed by President George W. Bush in mid-2008, goes beyond tuition assistance, offering many veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001, full tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a $1,000-a-year stipend for books and supplies.

It also extends the benefits to Reserve and National Guard members who have been activated for more than 90 days since Sept. 11, 2001, and it allows veterans to transfer the benefits to family members.

The program is a massive undertaking that Mr. Filner said his committee will monitor closely.

The Department of Veterans Affairs will start writing checks for the program Aug. 1. More than 25,000 claims for benefits were filed in the first two weeks after the agency began accepting applications May 1, according to the VA.

An estimated 520,000 veterans are expected to apply for benefits under the program, which is expected to cost $78 billion over 10 years.

“They are supposed to be staffed up appropriately,” Mr. Filner said. “We have harped on it and harped on it and harped on it that they have to be ready on Aug. 1. Unless I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume that’s what is happening.”

Mr. Filner, whose San Diego district has one of the largest concentrations of active-duty personnel and veterans in the country, made a beeline to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee as soon as he was elected to Congress in 1992.

“Since I didn’t know much about it, I said, ‘The best way to learn to help my constituents is to get on that committee,’ ” he said. “It’s turned out, I’ve learned a lot. I think we’ve been able to contribute a lot.”

Steven Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion, has been working with Mr. Filner for nearly two decades. In that time, he said, the lawmaker has won the trust of veterans groups by engaging them in honest dialogue.

“Mr. Filner and the American Legion don’t always see eye to eye, but we’ve always had an open door to go in and talk to him,” Mr. Robertson said. “The greatest asset a lawmaker can have is when they can listen, honestly listen.”

When Mr. Filner assumed the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2007, he undertook a series of symposiums to raise the level of awareness on issues important to veterans and their dependents.

The meetings provided input on issues ranging from claims backlogs at the VA to the incidence of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’ve got to clean up this incredible backlog of disability claims, which is over 800,000,” Mr. Filner said. “We have to make sure the mental health resources are in place. And we have to make sure that these new technologies and new medical devices and new ways of treating diseases and injuries that veterans have get quickly introduced into the VA.”

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