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Veterans shouldnt be denied health care

We all know that Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, a tribute to the men and women who sacrificed for freedom in the U.S. armed forces. We know that democracy flourishes the world over because of the sacrifice of America's veterans. We know that Veterans Day originates from the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when World War I ended.

Our nation praises its veterans with a holiday and with a solemn final tribute: placement of an American flag upon their coffins. Our state and federal governments set aside pristine expanses of hallowed ground in which America's veterans rest in eternal peace. Yet, as pro-veteran as America is, there are aspects of the relationship between our grateful nation and its veterans that most Americans probably do not know.

• Did you know that, pending the enactment of key legislation, military retirees who suffer from disabilities related to their military service are taxed a dollar of their retirement pay for every dollar they receive in disability compensation? If their disability compensation exceeds their retired pay, then they must forfeit their retired pay in order to collect disability.

• Did you know that since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, the U.S. armed forces have experienced a one-third cut in the active-duty force and a 300 percent increase in deployments? The growing mismatch between deployments and the total force has resulted in the repeated long-term deployment of National Guard units, precluding them from performing homeland security duties and other functions for which the nation's governors might need them.

Cracks in military reserve retention show the wear and tear on overdeployed reservists, most of whom lose money during activation because their civilian jobs pay substantially more than Uncle Sam Ñ and most corporations do not pay the difference, which would stabilize the citizen-soldiers' take-home pay during the many months of activation.

• Did you know that on a given night, about a quarter-million veterans are homeless, lacking both permanent shelter and hope? One-third of adult homeless men and nearly one-quarter of all homeless adults are veterans.

• Did you know that an estimated 164,000 veterans have been suspended from enrolling for health care with the Department of Veterans Affairs since Jan. 17? Did you know that before VA simply stopped veterans from entering the system Ñ within which they are entitled by law to seek treatment Ñ there were more than 200,000 veterans waiting from six months to two years to receive an initial appointment for primary care?

The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and other service organizations are still fighting for a law that would fund VA health care on a mandatory basis, rather than a discretionary basis, just like Social Security and Medicare, so that funding rises with the increased demand for treatment. The war on terror will only make this situation worse, as U.S. forces in Iraq average 40 wounded per week and a rising number of recently medically retired troops seek treatment with VA.

• Did you know that thousands of Guard and reserve personnel are counting on the enactment of legislation that will provide them health insurance to replace the employer-paid coverage that their families lost when they were called up for months Ñ in many cases for more than a year Ñ to fight the war on terror? Contrary to traditional public perception, Guard and reserve personnel are not 'weekend warriors.' They are an integral part of the total force, activated for months, even years, nearly every time they are called up. If they can answer their nation's call as active-duty troops do, then they should have access to the active-duty force's health care program.

Veterans number 25 million, not even one-tenth of the U.S. population. Nevertheless, we are reminded daily, particularly by the news from Iraq and Afghanistan, that veterans make up a brave and selfless faction that has helped to deter and avenge tyranny. Veterans have fought and died for all to advance the cause of liberty. Circumstances suggest that our veterans need the American people to stick up for their cause.

We know that freedom isn't free. We know that our elected leaders in Congress will do the right thing for our veterans if the American people really call for it. We know in our hearts that the selfless sacrifice that liberates the oppressed and protects our shores deserves to be justly compensated.

We know that our nation owes its veterans a square deal, and that this is a cause worthy of the passion and energy of a grateful and free people Ñ not only on Veterans Day, but every day.

John Brieden is national commander of the 2.8-million member American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization.