Skip to main content

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.

Sen. Sanders on supporting Veterans
Veterans Bill dies in Senate
Veteran's benefits bill fails to pass

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT