Letters to the Pilot

Thursday, April 18, 2002

Veterans need us now


In his State of the Union address, President Bush sketched out a smart plan to increase military spending as our country fights the war on terrorism. As a veteran, I support his position that "our men and women in uniform deserve the best weapons, the best equipment, the best training, and they also deserve a pay raise."

However, I thought the president failed to make an important national defense point concerning the plight of our nation's veterans suffering from toxic exposures.

Soldiers and sailors have repeatedly returned from overseas conflicts only to have to deal with debilitating physical ailments stemming from Agent Orange, Gulf War syndrome, radiation exposure or asbestos.

The asbestos ordeal is a shining example of the nation's failure to watch out for our veterans. Beginning around World War II, the Navy mandated use of asbestos on ships as insulation and a fire retardant. Its use continued through the 1960s, even though the Navy knew the dangers.

Many of the men who served on these ships have since gotten sick with such fatal diseases as mesothelioma. These diseases carry high costs for medical treatment and lost wages.

Military veterans have a couple of options to get help with these costs. They can file claims through the Veterans Affairs Department (the VA), or file a claim in a civil court of law. All veterans know that the VA can be slow, cumbersome and unresponsive. But, the civil claims process can be even worse.

Sick victims who seek compensation through the court are too often forced to wait too long for too little.

While we've all heard of multi-million dollar asbestos settlements, unfortunately, too often the money doesn't get to those who need it when they need it.

This is true for a number of reasons.

The first is time. A panel convened by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist found that because there are so many asbestos claims, suits can take nearly twice as long as other liability suits to get processed. In fact, many victims actually die before their cases are completed.

The second reason is cost. Rehnquist's panel also found that victims can receive as little as 37 cents for every dollar they are awarded. The rest goes to lawyers and administrative fees.

It's clear this system is broken and it needs to be fixed, fast. Veterans who are sick and dying because they served their country deserve our support. The only way to do this is for Congress to step up to the plate.

Our politicians in Washington need to create a new system and ensure all victims get the help they need, when they need it.

Hopefully, our troops fighting terrorists will get the support they need and come home safely. Hopefully, their ordeal ends when they reach America's shores. But as we send them our hopes and prayers, we must not forget the veterans who already served their country - and

the veterans who continue to fight battles every day against deadly illness and a system that doesn't seem to care.

Clint Hoferman

Buena Vista County

Veterans Service Officer