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Hearing of the House Veterans' Committee - The True Cost of the War


Location: Washington, DC

Good morning. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs will now come to order.

Before we get started, I ask unanimous consent that all Members may have 5 legislative days in which to revise and extend their remarks. Hearing no objection, so ordered.

Why is it that so many of the men and women who have returned from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan are finding it difficult to get the care that they need?

Is it because we failed to understand that the cost of serving our military veterans is a fundamental cost of war? Is it because when we sent these men and women into harm's way, we failed to account for and provide the resources necessary for their care should they be injured or wounded?

Every vote that Congress has taken for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed to take into account the actual cost of these wars by ignoring what will be required to meet the needs of our men and women in uniform who have been sent into harm's way.

This failure means that soldiers who are sent to war on behalf of their nation today do not know if their nation will be there for them tomorrow. The Congress that sends them into harm's way assumes no responsibility for the long-term consequences of their deployment. Each war authorization and appropriation kicks the proverbial can down the road.

Whether or not the needs of soldiers injured or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan will be met is totally dependent on the budget politics of a future Congress which includes two sets of rules -- one for going to war and one for providing for our veterans who fight in that war.

The fight to meet the needs of soldiers suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, for example, requires that offsets for the necessary funding are found in other parts of the budget. It is known around here as "pay-go." The Department of Defense has no such requirement. In other words, our current system of appropriating funds in Congress is designed to make it much easier to vote to send our soldiers into harm's way than it is to care for these soldiers when they come home.

This is morally wrong and an abdication of our fundamental responsibility as Members of Congress. It is past time for Congress to recognize that standing by our men and women in uniform and meeting their needs is a fundamental cost of war.

Congress should, therefore, account for these needs and take responsibility for meeting them at the time that we send these young people into combat.

In short, every Congressional appropriation for war should include money for a Veterans' Trust Fund that will assure that the projected needs of our wounded and injured soldiers are fully met at the time that they are needed.

This is not a radical idea. Businesses are required to account for the differed liability of their company every year. Ask any business accountant who has had to report to the IRS. Our Federal government has no such requirement when it comes to the deferred liability of meeting the needs of our men and women in uniform - even though meeting these needs is a moral obligation of our nation and a fundamental cost of war. Does this make any sense fiscally or ethically? I think not.

If, in years past, Congress had taken into account the deferred fiscal liability -- and moral obligation -- of meeting the future needs of soldiers injured or wounded in the conflicts that they were sent would we have been able to prevent hundreds of thousands of wounded warriors from the burden of an overwhelmed veterans' service delivery system?

And, would veterans and their advocates on Capitol Hill have to fight as hard as they do every year for benefits that should be readily available as a matter of course? Would they have to worry as much as they do today that these benefits will become targets in the debate over reducing the federal budget deficit? Would it not be less likely that the Co-Chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, Allen Simpson, would tell the Associated Press:

"The irony is that veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess."

Today's hearing will examine these and related questions. We will begin by focusing on what war actually costs when we take meeting the needs of our soldiers into account. To do this we are pleased and honored to have with us Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Linda Bilmes of Harvard, the authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War.

Their groundbreaking book brought a healthy but sobering dose of reality into public debates about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the long-term consequences of our decision to go to war.

We are also pleased to have distinguished military leaders, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prominent veterans' advocates and families of veterans here today to help us to put this question into the sharp relief of the day-to-day reality of those who have served their nation in uniform.

It is time for an open and honest discussion about the moral obligation of our nation to our nation's veterans. It is time to reflect on the need to reform a process that systematically denies the connection between fighting a war and meeting the needs of those who we send into harm's way. Our veterans deserve better.

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