Tuesday night's debate gave us insight into McCain's strategy from here on out. It goes something like this, "Trust me, I can't tell you how I am going to fix things but I know how to and don't worry it is easy."
The refusal to give details in regards to spending cuts, and an "entitlement freeze" should unsettle all Americans at a time when the promise of the free market has failed us all. If you want a preview of what is to come McCain's record on Veterans Affairs could not be more telling of what to expect. McCain once gave a speech in the Senate in which he said that the treatment of our most vulnerable Americans is like a miner's canary. At that time he was speaking of the treatment of Native American's in this country. He was quoting legal scholar Felix Cohen and his conclusion was that if Native American's were the miner's canary than the United States of America was surely toxic. The logic was that those that we owed most where receiving not only insufficient support, they were being outright forsaken. I think the same thing could now be said for American soldiers. Do not believe McCain when he says Veterans Affairs will not be part of the "entitlement freeze." In McCain's words look at the walk not the talk.
1. McCain has repeatedly voted against increases in Medical assistance for veterans.
A. He voted against a 1.5 Billion dollar increase in veterans medical services for the 2007 Veterans Afairs Fiscal Budget. (Obama voted for it)
B. In May 2006, McCain voted against a 20 billion dollar expansion of veterans' medical facilities. At that time, Veterans facilities claimed that they were facing an emergency situation in regards to their capacity to treat and provide services for the more than 30,000 wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for all of the other veterans who need care from previous service in the U.S. Military (Obama voted for it).
C. In 2006, McCain, the "Maverick", was one of only thirteen Senators to vote against a 430 million dollar expansion of outpatient services for veterans (Obama voted for it).
D. March 2004, McCain voted against a 1.8 billion dollar reserve for veterans' health care that was to be paid for entirely by closing tax loopholes (Obama was not in the Senate yet).
Why were these 'entitlement' programs so important? Well, the RAND corporation's study of troops returning home from the Iraq and Afghan conflicts found that more than 20 percent suffer from PTSD and an additional 19 percent suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury. That represents more than 330,000 U.S. troops. Without treatment and support the result will be a generation of soldiers who will experience severe depression, loss of motor skills, debilitating rage, outbursts, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, who will subject themselves to abusive situations, and who will abuse their family members. For those that do not commit suicide or become homeless most will likely be unable to hold down jobs, much less jobs that provide health coverage. Also, thanks to McCain they will have less money to pursue further education in hopes of finding such jobs.
McCain leaves these soldiers quite literally in the cold. He does not support outpatient treatment for those that have sacrificed themselves for the United States. This might be defensible if there was access to health care outside of the VA system but since McCain does not support health care coverage for civilians either, there is literally no "support for our troops".
Obama should use this to change the tenor of the Health Care debate as well as the debate over whether the Surge "worked". Sadly, I think that "Iraq fatigue" has caused the discussion over the initial invasion to be almost completely irrelevant. However, the continuing costs to United States taxpayers and veteran's families still sway voters. In addition to the farce of a war these soldiers have been exposed to, there is a tragic future that many of them and their families will face as casualties. Loved ones returning home should be a blessing not a burden. The difference will be made by the next preseident. The RAND Corporation reports that just treating the PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries incurred so far will require 6.2 billion dollars for just the first 2 years of treatment. If McCain wants to run on a spending freeze for entitlements, it is important to ask what unpaid "debts" McCain's policies are already accruing. The RAND report makes clear that crisis can be averted but it will require money and resources that McCain has not been willing to support.
It is important that the costs of Iraq be made human. The financial numbers are too abstract. Shifting the presumption on who supports American troops is important. After all, McCain clings to the support of "our soldiers" -- as he often refers to them -- every time the Iraq debate comes up. As McCain said in the first debate, "the troops know where I stand." In fact, they do. The Disabled Veterans of America gave McCain on of their lowest possible ratings and gave Obama a rating over 80 percent on the question of supporting veterans. The problem is that the rest of America does not know how the troops feel. Obama cannot shy away from indicting McCain's patriotism and troop commitment at a time when that is all that McCain has left.
2. Last September McCain voted against a bill sponsored by Senator Jim Web to give soldiers time to rest between combat deployments in hopes of reducing the number of suicides and severity of PTSD cases. It should be noted that, according to Army Secretary Pete Geren, this has directly contributed to the number of suicides and attempted suicides of U.S. combat troops, as well as a record number of PTSD cases (Obama voted for this too).
In the first year of the surge campaign, which required longer deployments and shorter turn around time for troops going from one combat mission to another, 2,100 U.S. Army soldiers attempted suicide. According to the U.S. Army, in 2007, five soldiers attempted suicide each day. Before the Iraq war began there were roughly 50 Army suicides a year. That number has increased dramatically. To be specific, suicides have more than doubled between 2001 and 2007. When Bush increased deployment and tour length for the actual combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan there was a 66 percent jump in suicides in the first year.
These numbers do not include over 300 suicides of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007. Over half of those that successfully killed themselves were National Guard or Reserve troops, most of who were sent into combat in violation of their service contracts. Suicide rates of discharged soldiers are likely much higher, but VA statistics are difficult to evaluate since there is not systematic information collected on troops once they leave the service unless the veterans themselves seek help.
Also, this data does not include 2008 a year that has already exceeded 2007 amounts. The Pentagon estimates that the 2008 suicide death toll of U.S. Army troops will be 130. It seems significant that a decrease of violence in Iraq has not decreased the suicide rate of U.S. Army forces. These numbers also do not include the other branches of the military. As a good social scientist I should note that these number are also severely underreported. Many deaths are kept 'under investigation' to prevent them from being counted by Veterans Affairs. On August 10th there were reports that 21 soldiers committed suicide en mass after discovering that their Airborne division had accidentally killed a number of women and children on a bombing run in Northern Baghdad. In the last news update 17 of these soldiers had died and 5 were still listed in critical condition according to an Iraqi Security Officer. So far these numbers have not been added to this years total as they are listed under investigation.
3. McCain opposed the update of the GI Bill of Rights and counter-offered by proposing a bill that would only provide education benefits for soldiers that served multiple tours of duty. Had McCain succeeded 75 percent of U.S. troops would have been deprived of education assistance after returning home from war. McCain's only argument for this position is that the initial GI Bill might prevent soldiers from returning to combat for multiple tours. McCain encourages this despite having been briefed on the RAND report that says that the majority of Traumatic Brain Injuries and PTSD cases are caused by returning for more than one tour. Obama ought to point out that McCain is sabotaging the young women and men who wear the military uniform. Obama is fighting to make sure that every U.S. soldiers has a future. McCain is only willing to support our troops when they need bullets and bombs. Once soldiers stop fighting they are own their own.
It is time to question McCain's credentials as a patriot even if Tom Brokaw says this is impossible. Why? Because McCain and Obama do not simply disagree on the details of policy-making. McCain is so staunchly in favor of deregulation and free market solutions as an ideology that he will not even support health care and education benefits for American soldiers who risk their lives to fight bravely in a war they know virtually no one supports.
McCain has reminded us all time and time again that he will not pull out of Iraq because he is concerned about troop morale. Unfortunately he has sold U.S. soldiers down the river for symbolic 'spending cuts' while continuing to support tax cuts for the rich, loopholes for big business, and expanding not resolving the war in Iraq. Ask yourself what soldiers would prefer: Coming home victors from a hundred year occupation or returning home to find adequate health care and education benefits?
If McCain cares this little about those he says he supports most, imagine how little he cares about you.