Traveling through an airport recently, I witnessed a now-commonplace ritual: military personnel getting head-of-the-line privileges in the boarding area. As we complete the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, one of the legacies of the longest war in our history is how the public has rallied to support those who served.
While this can seem superficial at times, there is not a vet alive who would prefer the other extreme. My father served in Vietnam, and the welcome home his generation received was a national disgrace.
Unfortunately, the modern-day lionization of veterans has itself gone too far. In Washington, this knee-jerk support has resulted in policy decisions that will hurt both vets and the larger public over time.
Since 2000, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen its budget nearly triple. Its programs run the gamut from burial benefits to job training. But among the biggest cost drivers is the disability-compensation system, which now approaches $60 billion per year.
These disability payments are separate from medical costs associated with treating an injury, and are set at varying levels to compensate injured veterans for an assumed inability to work. The average payout has risen 60 percent (inflation-adjusted) since 2000, and the proportion of veterans receiving some form of compensation has nearly doubled.
And while most vets who receive disability checks deserve them, one of the worst kept secrets among those seeking a disability rating is that the system can be beaten. Claim the right combination of symptoms, whether you are suffering or not, and there is a decent chance you can get a monthly disability check, tax free, for the rest of your life. There are even blogs out there to walk you through the process of claiming an injury that cannot be disproved.
Sometimes it takes no effort at all. When I left the Navy in 2005, I filled out a form and got a medical exam in order to document a fractured shoulder that I had sustained in the line of duty. Soon after, I received a rating and my first monthly direct-deposit payment.
Not feeling entitled to anything other than medical care, I attempted to discontinue the payment, but was told there was no process for doing so. Even my ability to hold a full-time job had no bearing on my disability rating.
As a nation, we have no greater duty than to care for those who have fought our battles. But the current disability-compensation regime demands a closer look, not only for the sake of financial prudence but also to avoid creating a culture of dependency. A recent study by Mark Duggan, an economist at Stanford, linked rising disability payments to increased unemployment among veterans. The author suggests that such payments may reduce the "recipient's propensity to work" because disability checks obviate the need for a job.
Someday, once all the backlogs at Veterans Affairs are cleared, many will declare "mission accomplished." But this is when the real problem will emerge. The annual cost of disability compensation is rising steadily, to $60 billion today from $20 billion in 2000. That curve continues to bend upward. The American public will move beyond superficial expressions of support and ask, "Is this bill too high?" They are the ones, after all, who are stuck with the tab. Payouts set to top $100 billion are going to draw attention.
So how did we get here? Over the last 14 years of war, America has experienced a perfect storm of sympathy for veterans: a combination of unmet needs like vets waiting for care, an admiring but ultimately disengaged public and a political class with almost no military experience that feels it lacks the moral authority to say no. Today, it is taboo to question the honor of a veteran seeking compensation, and those who dare challenge the benefits system are deemed insufficiently patriotic.
Policy updates can address some of this. Veterans Affairs should look harder at ways the system is being gamed, and abuses should be ended much as we go after phony workers' compensation claims. There should be an option for those who want to document injuries to guarantee medical care, but who do not want a compensation payment. And we should double down on programs like job training that empower veterans as opposed to creating dependencies.
We have come a long way since Vietnam, and for that we should be grateful. But over time, an act as simple as honoring service members at the airport can morph into something altogether dishonorable. As veterans, we should not demand more than we are owed. As a society, we should have the guts to push back when necessary, and elect leaders who can make tough choices about issues such as Veterans Affairs spending. Above all, we must guard against the day when the benefits veterans have rightfully earned become a source of resentment to those they have faithfully served. ☐
Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot and mission commander, works for Team Rubicon, a veteran-based disaster-relief organization.