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Congress lets down military members and vets

By Paul Rieckhoff
updated 7:55 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: Paul Rieckhoff is an Iraq veteran, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the author of "Chasing Ghosts." Follow him on Twitter @PaulRieckhoff.

(CNN) -- Just how awful has Washington dysfunction become? America's military members and veterans -- once immune to political sniping -- are caught in the crossfire.

Last week, members of the U.S. Senate again engaged in their usual political games, and this time, veterans lost out on critical support.

Almost all Veterans Service Organizations strongly supported the Veterans Omnibus Bill, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans.

Paul Rieckhoff
Paul Rieckhoff

It is a transformative bill that includes critical, longstanding priorities for veterans. The bill would provide additional advance funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, help the V.A. end the disability claims backlog, improve health care services, strengthen the new G.I. Bill, support veterans hiring programs and expand survivor benefits.

Each of these provisions has garnered bipartisan support. But when the legislation, introduced by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, reached the Senate floor, Republicans objected to the scope of the bill.

Democrats wouldn't allow amendments. Republicans wouldn't provide the votes to move forward. Nobody would compromise and veterans were left getting the shaft.

The Senate shenanigans capped a winter of discontent for our community in which Washington continually attacked military members, veterans and their families. It used to be that vets could count on bipartisan support in Congress. But clearly, no more.

In December, Congress cut military retirement benefits as part of a bipartisan, backroom budget deal. Reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment for most military retirees and survivors would have led to a 20% cut to retirement benefits over the course of their lives. For a retired Army sergeant first class (E-7) that would have meant the loss of $83,000 in retirement savings.

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After massive protests and pressure from veterans and supporters, Congress finally reversed course and restored the benefits for veterans who served or enlisted before January 1, 2014.

Last week, Congress forced the Pentagon to make budget cuts that increased living costs for our service members. Our service members are faced with a budget that would raise their grocery prices at commissaries by at least 20% and force military families to pay an additional 5% out-of-pocket for housing.

CNN reported that members of the military redeemed nearly $104 million in food stamps at commissaries in the fiscal year that ended September 30. The Defense Department budget would cut subsidies that service members use to pay for diapers for their kids and to put bread on the table.

And then Thursday the Senate leadership put partisanship ahead of helping veterans.

Veterans and those active in the armed forces don't have time for this nonsense. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will be going to the Hill next month to demand Congress stop the attacks and put veterans ahead of petty politics. Washington needs to do much more to support those who sacrificed for their country. There are many deep problems:

About 22 veterans die by suicide every day. And according to a new study, the suicide rate for young male vets has skyrocketed, up 44% from 2009 to 2011.

The V.A. disability claims backlog has hovered near 400,000 for months. These are veterans whose lives are on hold, waiting for the benefits they have earned.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans remains higher than the national average.

Congress and the administration still have not truly reformed the broken military justice system, which has failed tens of thousands of survivors of military sexual assault.

I had the honor of attending the State of the Union a month ago, when every member of Congress stood up to applaud Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was wounded in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment overseas. The sustained, thundering applause was an incredibly moving gesture. But ultimately, it was just that: a gesture.

What has Congress done since the State of the Union to help veterans like Cory who put on a uniform to defend our country? Aside from fixing its own mess on military retirement benefits, Congress has done nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Veterans have taken notice. And we're not going to sit by idly as Congress fails to act on our priorities and, worse, attacks the benefits we've earned.

Winter mercifully is ending. We await a spring of hope for veterans and their families.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Rieckhoff.

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