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Support the Troops?

Cheap Talk and Abandoned Obligations

Scott Lilly on how the Bush administration has consistently neglected and opposed supporting the troops, despite its rhetoric.

A specialist in the Maintenance Company of the Illinois Army National Guard change tires for a 2.5-ton, M35A2 truck. The Illinois Army National Guard is only one of many units in the United States and deployed in Iraq that are facing significant equipment shortages. (AP/Seth Perlman)
A specialist in the Maintenance Company of the Illinois Army National Guard change tires for a 2.5-ton, M35A2 truck. The Illinois Army National Guard is only one of many units in the United States and deployed in Iraq that are facing significant equipment shortages. (AP/Seth Perlman)

No presidency in American history has been more vocal on the subject of “supporting our troops” than the Bush White House. The White House website identifies 357 separate documents containing the words “support our troops.”

But there seems to be a disturbing disconnect between the rhetoric of this White House and the reality of what they are actually willing to do on behalf of the men and women in uniform. That disconnect is clearly reflected by the president’s opposition to legislation proposed by Sen. James Webb (D-VA) that would extend education benefits similar to those provided to the veterans of World War II to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just six days after U.S. troops crossed the Kuwaiti border en route to Baghdad in 2003, the White House issued a press release stating, “President Bush will submit a wartime supplemental budget request to Congress that will …support the men and women of our Armed Forces …”

The same day, the White House issued a second press release urging the American people to “Support Our Troops” by sending letters and care packages.

A “Loyalty Day” proclamation issued in the president’s name in April 2004 stated, “By supporting our troops and their families, citizens are making a difference in their communities and showing loyalty to our country through their patriotism.”

White House Press Aide Trent Duffy told the press in December 2004, “This president has been one of the strongest presidents in history for supporting our troops.”

In June, 2005, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan briefed the White House press corps on communications the president had sent to the troops in Iraq. “The president let our troops know that during this time of testing, the American people stand firmly behind them. This July 4th is a time for all Americans to express their support and gratitude by thanking our men and women in uniform. The president … encourage[s] everybody to do what they can to continue to support our troops, particularly those who are in harm’s way.”

In January 2006 the president told a Joint Session of Congress, “We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission.”

A month later he told the House Republican Conference, “We don’t fear the future, because we’re going to shape the future … And that means supporting our troops in harm’s way. I want to thank you for supporting the troops last year, and I look forward to working with you to support our troops this coming year.”

In October of 2007 the president stated, “I strongly agree that we must provide our troops with the help and support they need to get the job done. Parts of this war are complicated, but one part is not, and that is America should do what it takes to support our troops and protect our people.”

And only this past April he spoke on the South Lawn of the White House saying, “We owe those who wear the uniform all the support they can possibly have.”

Yet on May 9, 2008, an administration witness testified in opposition to Webb’s new G.I. bill, citing the complexity of its eligibility rules, anticipated cost, and possible administrative burden. Ten days later, a Statement of Administration Policy sent to Congress said that the administration is “concerned that because of the high benefit for limited service included in this bill, it could harm retention rates within the armed forces.” In fact, the benefit is somewhat less generous than the one offered to World War II veterans since the tuition is capped at the level charged by state universities. Further, veterans eligible for the Webb benefit would be a much smaller portion of the overall population, making the benefit far more affordable.

A total of 15 million veterans of World War II were eligible for education benefits, and about 7 million accepted them. Those eligible represented nearly 11 percent of the entire U.S. population at the time. That compares with less than 3 million (probably fewer than 2 million) veterans who would be eligible for benefits under the Webb bill—less than 1 percent of the current U.S. population.

Many who would be eligible would have experienced repeated deployments and literally years of service in combat because the burden of fighting this particularly war has fallen more heavily on a far narrower segment of the population. In other words, it would be far easier for the United States today to treat the small force that has borne the heavy burden of our nation’s policy toward Iraq than it was to provide the same treatment at the end of World War II.

Record of Neglect

What is not widely recognized about this recent conflict between Congress and the White House over the level of education benefits appropriate for those who have served is that the White House’s miserly position on this question is not an anomaly. Despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary, the Bush White House has a long and consistent record of both failing to effectively minimize the sacrifice required of those who serve, and outright opposing assistance that might ease their burden. This has been true not only with respect to those who have left military service, but also those on active duty.

Perhaps the first sign of this cavalier disregard for those being placed in harm’s way was the decision to allow political appointees at the Pentagon to overrule military leaders in determining the size of the force that would be used for the Iraq invasion. Because the invasion plans prepared by the military were overruled, the forces needed to provide protection to the long supply lines moving into Iraq were not available, and the consequence was higher casualty levels than would have otherwise occurred.

Four months after the invasion, Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) returned from Iraq with news that substantial numbers of U.S. soldiers had been sent into the war zone without body armor. Two months later, FOX News reported that, “as many as 51,000 American soldiers and civilian administrators in Iraq have not yet been equipped with the gear, and have been asking friends and families at home to purchase and send them off-the-shelf models for protection.”

The fact that families of service members sent to Iraq were able to buy body armor and get it to their loved ones in Iraq, while the Pentagon itself was unable to do so, created a firestorm in Congress where legislation was enacted requiring the Defense Department to reimburse service members and their families for such purchases. Nearly a year later, however, many troops in Iraq were still unable to get body armor through official channels and unable to obtain reimbursement for purchases made by their families.

Similar controversies surrounded the Pentagon’s inability to get better-armored vehicles to Iraq to protect troops from improvised explosives and jammers to disarm such weapons. But in February 2007, revelations about the seriously substandard living conditions that recovering soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital were being subjected to left little question that “supporting the troops” were words more frequently repeated than practiced.

More recently, the pathetic state of the housing that many returning soldiers are assigned provided even more evidence to substantiate that conclusion. On April 24th, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and David Vitter (R-LA) along with Congressman Jim McCrery (R-LA) sent a letter and photographs to Army Secretary Pete Geren objecting to the living conditions “far below acceptable standards” that were being provided to soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division and the 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade returning from Iraq.

While the Army was still preparing a response to the charges of substandard living conditions at Fort Polk, the father of soldier from the 82nd Airborne returning from Afghanistan posted a YouTube video of the deplorable housing his son’s unit had been assigned at Fort Bragg, NC. Stars and Strips reported, “The video shows peeling paint, mold, a bathroom drain plugged with what appears to be sewage and a broken room door lock, conditions that Frawley (the father) described as disgusting and embarrassing. The instant you walk through the front door, you know you are in a building that should be condemned.’”

Opposition to Real Support

The administration’s role in these widespread problems is more than simply one of poor management, misplaced priorities, or benign neglect. The White House has repeatedly opposed efforts by Congress to improve the pay, treatment, and living conditions of our troops and veterans. In many instances there is a clear record of their actions.

Since 2001, the Bush administration has repeatedly failed to request the amounts needed to repair and replace badly dilapidated military housing. In five of the eight budgets President Bush submitted to Congress, he proposed cutting military construction funding below prior year levels, and in 2004, only months before the invasion of Iraq, he proposed that military construction be cut by nearly $1.5 billion, or about 15 percent.

The Bush administration has also repeatedly objected to efforts by the Congress to restore funds for family and bachelor housing, and increase the resources needed to repair or replace the huge inventory of dilapidated and inadequate housing still in use by members of the military. In 2005, for instance, the White House requested that funding for military housing be cut below the prior year levels, and when Congress refused to do so, the president’s budget director sent a Statement of Administration Policy stating:

"The Administration appreciates the Committee’s support for military construction and family housing priorities, which will improve the quality of life of our service members. The Administration is concerned, however, that projects funded in the bill exceed the President’s request by over $0.5 billion."

On four separate occasions since the beginning of the Iraq war, the White House sent messages to Congress objecting to military pay increases on the grounds that they were too generous. In 2004, they objected to additional pay for reservists who were involuntarily mobilized. In 2006, they objected to Congress granting a 2.7 percent inflation adjustment rather than the 2.2 percent proposed by the White House. In 2007, they once again objected to the higher inflation adjustment proposed by Congress. And in May of this year, they sent an objection to the Defense Authorization Bill, saying, “The Administration strongly opposes sections 601 and 608 of the bill. The additional 0.5 percent increase in 2009 above the president’s proposed 3.4 percent across the board pay increase is unnecessary, as are increased pay raises in the out years.”

The White House used Statements of Administration Policy to object to military medical care provisions that they deemed overly generous in 2006 and 2007. They also repeatedly objected to provisions that would allow retired military with service-related disabilities to collect compensation for those disabilities on top of their military retirement incomes.

In 2006, more and more servicemen were being sent back to Iraq and Afghanistan on repeated tours, reservists were being involuntarily forced into active duty, and those whose enlistment contract had expired were being “stop lossed,” or forced to continue service through a backdoor draft. Yet the administration objected to congressional efforts to increase the size of the military. To quote the Statement of Administration Policy, “The Administration opposes increases in minimum active Army and Marine Corps end strengths …because they could require DoD to maintain a higher personnel level than is needed.”

Last year, the White House continued its long tradition of opposing additional funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and particularly the over burdened VA Medical System. The House of Representatives proposed spending $3.2 billion more than the administration had requested to accelerate processing assistance applications from returning G.I.s and greatly improve and expand treatment provided for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury—two illnesses particularly prevalent among returning Iraq veterans. The following response was sent to Congress by the White House: “the Administration is concerned that H.R. 2642 contains an excessive level of spending and other objectionable provisions … the requested level for FY 2008 is more than sufficient to address all needs within the VA system.”

As the Army Times pointed out only a few weeks after U.S. forces took Baghdad:

“In recent months, President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress have missed no opportunity to heap richly deserved praise on the military. But talk is cheap—and getting cheaper by the day, judging from the nickel and dime treatment the troops are getting lately. For example, the White House griped that various pay-and-benefits incentives added to the 2004 defense budget by Congress are wasteful and unnecessary-including a modest proposal to double the $6000 gratuity paid to families of troops who die on active duty …

Similarly the administration wants to roll back recent modest increase in monthly imminent-danger pay (from $225 to $150) and family-separation allowance (from $250 to $100) for troops getting shot at in combat zones …Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas …put it this way: out men and women don’t deserve to be saluted with our words and insulted by our action.

Translation: Money talks—and we know what walks.”

Regrettably, it seems that for the Bush administration, the slogan “support the troops” is nothing more than a false promise.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow