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Thursday, Dec. 05, 2002

We now march inexorably toward war with Iraq, and to fight that war, we will have to call upon many soldiers. Not just an air barrage, but a significant land invasion, is contemplated. Those who fight will have to be the bravest of the brave - potentially confronting chemical and biological weapons, and facing a dictator who is not afraid to use them. Meanwhile, soldiers still remain in Afghanistan, and may well be deployed elsewhere in the ongoing war on terrorism.

How will we treat those who fought for us, when they return home? It is a question we have had to confront less and less, as the number of veterans has declined. But it is nonetheless a crucial question, for veterans deserve far more than they have been given in the past - not just these future veterans, but also the veterans of past conflict.

Maybe fresh veterans, in the midst of what portends to be a worldwide conflict, will remind us how crucial a service the armed forces provide, and how much we should honor our veterans.

Meanwhile, we should recall how badly we've treated our veterans for a long time, and resolve to do better. The laws governing the funding of Washington DC's Old Soldiers and Airmen's Home provide a prime example of our selling veterans short.

A Trend of Ignoring Veterans' Services and Issues

For years, the number of military veterans declined until, in the heady 90's there was a sense that perhaps the United States could, without risk, downsize the military to a small working force. The Cold War was long over, our former enemies were no longer as strong as we had thought, and the United States looked invincible. Vietnam veterans had generally been met with suspicion, not ticker tape parades, and our society was used to disparaging its veterans.

Meanwhile, Congress started to chip away at veterans' services, and to give veterans' issues (especially health care) short shrift. Perhaps it was not surprising: Notwithstanding the prominence and distinguished service of Sen. McCain, there are few veterans now serving in Congress.

At the same time, law schools and universities spurned military interviewers and recruiters - prioritizing gay rights over the quality of our military - even as they happily invited private sector interviewers and recruiters to campus. After all, wasn't a career at Microsoft or McKinsey far more worthy and socially useful than one in the Marines?

That was then - and then September 11 came, and we were reminded of the military's value, and indeed, its necessity.

The Old Soldiers and Airmen's Home Debacle

In exchange for their willingness to risk their lives in battle, veterans have long been promised lifetime medical care. But as their numbers dwindled, that promise became more a chimera than a reality. Currently, though litigation and lobbying, various veterans' groups continue to fight cuts in medical coverage, in Veterans' hospitals, and in military nursing homes.

For example, the Old Soldiers and Airmen's Home in Washington, DC, a nursing home for retired vets, has faced financial difficulties for years. The Home accommodates more than 1,000 servicepersons each year, yet is privately funded.

How could the home be saved? A two-part plan was put together. First, the home would sell adjoining property that it did not use, but that was valuable. Second, the home would collect an additional 50 cents/month from each enlisted member, and earmark it for the Soldiers Home (and also for the Naval Home, in Gulfport, Mississippi.)

Sounds simple, right? Not so. The Home's neighbor, Catholic University, had its eye on the land, pulled a few strings, and managed to persuade Congress it should get the land at below-market value. Congress then passed a law directing the Home to sell its land only to Catholic. Veterans were rightly upset: the low price meant the Home would likely have to close even after the land was sold.

The media shone light on the deal, and the obvious Establishment Clause problems it posed, since Congress was forcing a sale to a religious institution, thereby shutting out secular bidders and, indeed, other religious bidders. Under intense scrutiny, Congress was embarrassed into repealing the law. But the new law was only a partial improvement.

The new law, enacted to replace it, permitted the Home to sell the land through a public bidding process (Catholic challenged the process, but lost in court). Under the new law, Catholic still retained a right of first refusal, however - which meant it could try to match the winning bid. (Apparently Congress just could not bear to fully abandon its special treatment of the University).

After a successful competitive bidding process, the highest bidder came in at $32.7 million. Catholic has not yet stated whether it will attempt to match the offer.

Whoever the buyer ends up being, that amount is probably enough to secure the Home's future, but only as long the monthly deduction from servicemembers' pay is increased soon. It is doubtful, however, whether that will happen.

The Servicemembers' Pay Deduction Finally Becomes Law

The proposal to deduct an additional 50 cents/month from service pay had been floating around for quite a while. It has been controversial; the Navy objects to the increase on the grounds that Congress, not the armed services' enlisted personnel, should pay for the Homes.

In the 2002 Defense Authorization Act, Congress finally made the deduction (without the 50 cent increase) law. It also provided a one-time $5.2 million grant for the Homes.

But the grant is not enough: Even with it, the Homes are still running at a reported $2 million shy of their operating costs. And soon the $32.7 million from the land sale is apt to run out, too, if it has to cover day-to-day operating costs: Some estimates put the Old Soldiers' Home as running an annual deficit of $10-12 million/year.

Thus, without additional funding, the Home will inevitably close, and in the near future. Is that how we want to treat our vets?

It's Up to Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz What to Do Now

The future of the Old Soldiers Home is thus in the hands of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who reportedly have not yet ruled on this issue. (An underling has been responsible for blocking the increase in the deduction thus far.)

They have three choices. First, they can move forward on the additional 50-cent deduction. Given that a pay raise for servicemembers was just approved, the timing may be right; an additional 50-cent deduction would now be more easily absorbed.

Second, they can lobby Congress to take over the costs of these Homes. If Congress did so, and did so consistently, that might be even better than having servicemembers themselves pay. (After all, lifetime health care is supposed to be their right, not a service offered to them for a price.) But given Congress's disgraceful behavior vis-a-vis Catholic in the land sale, I'm not hopeful. Moreover, what Congress giveth, it can take away the next year, leaving the fate of the home a political one.

Third, they can renege on the promises made to vets and tell incoming vets that health care--if they survive the war--will not be the government's responsibility. Of course, that would be a terrible mistake, both from the point of view of decency and honor, and that of recruitment.

Whatever the Department of Defense or Congress does, they can no longer treat veterans as a necessarily dwindling, anachronistic group in our society. In truth, the veteran population will be quite sizable in coming decades - and it may have special continuing health problems, as soldiers face chemical, biological, and even nuclear (or at least "dirty") weapons.

In this dangerous future, facilities like the Old Soldiers' Home will only be more necessary. That is one reason it is imperative to save them now.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns, including a prior column on military recruitment in the law schools, is available on this site. Her email address is

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