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A Duty to the Wounded

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By Bob Dole and Donna E. Shalala
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It is time to decide -- do we reform the current military and veterans' disability evaluation and compensation systems or limp along, placing Band-Aids over existing flaws?

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It has been more than 2 1/2 months since our commission presented its six pragmatic recommendations to improve the system of care for our injured service members and their families. Our recommendations are eminently doable and designed for immediate implementation. While progress has been made, more work remains. And the clock is ticking.

The vast majority of the steps needed to implement our recommendations must be taken by the administration. Since unveiling our report, we have met frequently with officials from the White House and the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. We are pleased that they are moving forward with several critical changes, including the development of recovery plans and assigning coordinators to oversee the care of our most seriously injured troops.

We have also testified before Congress and met individually with lawmakers. Overall, we are buoyed by the strong bipartisan support being given to the proposals.

Despite this support, however, it is clear that our recommendations are being swept up in a decades-long battle to reform the entire disability system for all service members. It is important to remember that our commission was tasked with improving care and benefits for those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While we hope that our recommendations will help many others, our mission was to make the system work better for this new generation of veterans.

The current systems of disability and compensation are convoluted, confusing and dated. Modernizing the disability system was of great importance to our commission. Four of our nine commissioners are disabled -- including two who sustained serious injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and one is the wife of a soldier severely burned in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

According to research our commission conducted among wounded and evacuated service members from the current conflicts, the disability rating system at both Defense and Veterans Affairs is poorly understood and is a source of major dissatisfaction. Almost 60 percent of the service members had difficulty understanding the disability evaluation process. Our recommendations would update and simplify the disability determination and compensation system; eliminate parallel activities between the two departments; reduce inequities; and provide injured veterans with the tools to return to productive life.

We would create a system that allows the departments to focus on their separate missions. Under our system, Defense maintains authority to determine fitness to serve. For those found not fit for duty, payment would be provided for time served. Veterans Affairs then would establish the disability rating, compensation and benefits. Defense must provide the necessary military strength and expertise to keep our nation secure. It should determine fitness standards and provide for the health and readiness of the military workforce. As an employer, it must also provide retirement benefits. The VA's mission is to care for our nation's veterans by providing appropriate benefits and services.

Fundamentally, the system our recommendations would create is designed for our current service members and their families. These men and women differ from the generations that came before them. They have different injuries, different needs and, thanks to advances in medicine and science, greater opportunities to transition back to fulfilling lives. They need a system that is easy to navigate and allows them to focus on building their futures.

While this particular recommendation has received acclaim from many veterans organizations for being balanced and reasonable, some veterans groups that want to reform the system for all former service members have called to stop any movement forward and to simply perpetuate the present, flawed system. However, when we reviewed the recommendations that the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission released this month, we saw many of the same conclusions that we reached. That 2 1/2 -year study only adds to the pleas for change from those troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and throughout our country who just want their lives back.

Since the historic Bradley Commission in 1956, numerous task forces and commissions have been created to improve the system of care. While there has been tinkering around the edges, lack of political will almost always got in the way of serious reform. This must not be allowed to happen again.

Yes, our elected officials should continuously examine how to enhance care for all those who have been put in harm's way. But right now, they have actionable recommendations that can make a real difference for those who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. With Veterans Day only a few weeks away, we can think of no better tribute than to give our new veterans a system that truly meets their needs.

Bob Dole was a Republican senator from Kansas from 1969 to 1996. Donna E. Shalala was secretary of health and human services from 1993 to 2001. They are co-chairs of thePresident's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors.


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