In their younger years, they sprayed Agent Orange over Vietnam to expose the enemy. Under the sea, they used their backs and legs to help shove 4,000-pound submarine torpedoes into place. They fought the enemy mano a mano.
Some of them, mere boys on the front lines in 'Nam, witnessed such unspeakable horror that they later spent months in psychiatric wards. The hollow pain in their soul had a name: post-traumatic stress disorder.
They enlisted as early as World War II, and others saw action from Vietnam to the Gulf War before retiring after 20 years or more of service.
Today, the WWII vets are dying at a rate of 5,500 a day. The younger ones, just a tad over 50 and trying to earn a living, walk with the help of braces, canes or crutches their bones knotted, their knees buckled, their spinal discs ruptured from years of lugging, hauling, pulling, shoving, shooting. They take pills for depression, for high blood pressure, for back pain, for stomach problems, for proudly serving their country.
And how does a "grateful" nation repay them for their sacrifice?
We deduct every nickel of their retirement pay for every nickel they get in military disability compensation. To allow them to collect both pension earned for 20 years in the military and disability payments for their injuries in the service for their pain, suffering and loss of potential income somehow is construed as "double dipping."
Some of them, like 76-year-old Claude Ayers, a retired Air Force sergeant who lives in Largo, Fla., no longer qualify for a pension only disability payments. His wife, Bernice, a nurse who served in Hiroshima, cared for the ill after the United States dropped The Big One on Japan. She has suffered tuberculosis, colon cancer and had thyroid problems. Radiation exposure, you think?
Frank Spina, 63, joined the Navy in 1959. The retired senior chief petty officer uses a cane and has a constant ringing in the ears. Loading torpedoes was backbreaking work. "One guy would push with his foot; one with his back" to guide the torpedoes into place, he said. Today, hydraulic lifts do the job.
As I talked with the small group of disabled military men, Eugenio Gomez nervously shook his right leg for more than an hour. Awarded a Purple Heart during 'Nam, Gomez, 52, was an Army sergeant first class when he retired in 1994 after serving in Kuwait. "Although disability is the price that many of us paid, when our country needed us the most, we were there," the Kissimmee, Fla., resident said.
Jose Morales, 54, was an Army master sergeant. He wears a back brace, has two fused discs and another needs surgery. Like Gomez and others, he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. When he was unable to work for five months because of illness, "it was a financial disaster."
Harry Copeland, retired Navy master chief petty officer, did two missions in 'Nam and later worked at the Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Fla. All those years as a torpedo man literally broke his back. He misses two to four days of work a month because of excruciating pain.
Had these men served only four years, gotten hurt and been classified disabled, and then gone on to work in a federal job say, at U.S. Customs for 20 years they could collect both their government pensions and full military disability. "But because we stayed and served our country for 20 years, we don't qualify for full pension if we get disability. It's not right," Copeland, 50, notes.
No, it's not. We know it in our guts. Congress knows it, too, but every year Washington pays lip service to the vets.
This year, both the House and the Senate passed so-called concurrent-receipt legislation that would make things right. The Senate's bill is more generous. The House's plan would cover only those with a disability rating of 60 percent or more.
Many disabled vets fear Congress will delay acting on the bill until after the November election, then poof gone. Or President Bush might veto the spending, saying it would break the bank. Wouldn't be prudent for Bush II to do that, though, when he's rattling sabers over Iraq.
This shouldn't be about money. It's about a nation's obligation to those who risk their lives to defend the country. Soldiers, sailors and airmen don't have the luxury of choosing their wars. They just do whatever it takes. We should, too.