As thousands of U.S. military men and women ship out to the Middle East, the veterans from World War II and Korea -- men who faced death and lived to tell about it -- are gearing up for a fight, too. Not against a bully in Iraq but against our own government's travesty of broken promises.
The vets' fight isn't about the past, though many people might think so. It's not about "getting theirs," about freebies or special treatment. It is about this nation's obligation to honor its promises to those who risk their lives to protect this country and its democratic ideals.
World War II and Korean War vets are fighting the U.S. government in court to ensure that all those who come after them -- whether it's today's volunteer military force or a drafted one in the future -- are treated fairly. Promises made must be honored.
During World War II and entering the Cold War, military recruiters promised young men that if they served their country honorably for 20 years, their nation would take care of them. Free medical care for them and their families was a given.
But with base closings and a voluntary force, those promises faded into the woodwork of government bureaucracy. The Clinton administration began the assault when it forced vets older than 65 to get Medicare. At first I believed such a change was a fiscal necessity. Now I know better.
Many of those World War II and Korea vets are in their 80s. They spent 20 years or more living on paltry pay, often far from home, at great cost to their families. How do we repay them?
Force them out of a free veterans health-care system they were guaranteed. Many can't afford to cover the premiums, deductibles and co-payments of supplemental insurance in the Medicare program.
Air Force Col. George E. "Bud" Day, a veteran of World War II, Korea and prisoner of war in Vietnam, won't stand for it. He filed a class-action lawsuit six years ago. Clinton's Justice Department argued then that even if recruiters promised free medical care upon military retirement, there was no law on the books to require such care.
Well, that's debatable. And Day, a lawyer, hopes to be able to argue that point before the U.S. Supreme Court now that President Bush's Justice Department forced an appellate court to rule. Initially, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recognized the obvious -- a nation's promise broken -- and ruled with the vets. But then the administration sought a vote of the entire court. It ruled 9-4 in November that the recruiters had made the promises "in good faith" but that wasn't enough. No contractual obligation existed, the majority ruled.
Maybe not on paper, but certainly in the psyche of a nation that's supposed to stand for justice.
Day, who received the nation's highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor, spent five long years being tortured at the "Hanoi Hilton," along with Sen. John McCain, during the Vietnam War. Where's this nation's gratitude -- not just to Day or McCain but to all vets who were promised free medical care for sticking it out to protect America's freedoms?
The old warriors are going to fight like hell to have their government uphold its part of the bargain. On Feb. 12 thousands will descend on Washington for a rally. Billboards depicting old warriors seeking justice will spring up in the D.C. area. Those who support Day and his group will march to the Supreme Court. It will decide whether to hear the case. But that's a technicality.
Bush could press his Republican-run Congress to pass a law right now. Because this isn't about budget-busting freebies. It's simply about what's right and just.
During Bush's first days in office he vowed, "We must keep our commitment to those who wore the uniform in the past. We will make sure promises made to our veterans will be promises kept."
Do it now, Mr. President. Do it for those who sacrificed a lifetime ago and for those who are prepared to die for us today in Iraq. Without trust in our government, there's little worth fighting for.