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Trump attacks on our military go beyond 'losers,' 'suckers' smears

Originally published in the North Jersey (Bergen) Record 


President Donald Trump’s reported desecration of American soldiers who fell in World War I may rank among the worst slurs he has uttered in office. But Trump’s hostility toward troops and veterans is not new. Trump has compiled a record in word and deed that is derisive to the health of service members, especially those who have suffered some of the worst wounds in action.

Despite Trump’s avowed affection, his administration has repeatedly attempted to slash benefits for veterans. Under current law, veterans are eligible to receive generous disability compensation the day after being discharged or released from the hospital or rehabilitation. Importantly, when disabilities worsen, veterans have wide leeway to apply for increased financial support.

In each of its last three Veterans Affairs Department budgets, the administration has tried to narrow veterans’ ability to apply for disability benefits. Under these proposals, eligibility would be limited only to cases of injury occurring during combat or training, lessening the time veterans have to obtain disability assistance.

Similarly, Trump’s attempts to gut Medicaid are devastating to veterans. Trump’s latest proposed budget trimmed Medicaid by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, an approximate one-quarter cut. Today, nearly one in 10 U.S. veterans — almost two million in total — receive Medicaid.

While the Democratic House has blocked these changes from being realized, that they are even contemplated is a stunning betrayal. These cuts risk the health of the most in-need veterans, including those who require constant care for traumatic brain injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, and other chronic maladies.

Not only has Trump sought to slash benefits, but he has presided over a withering of the VA. As of this spring, the department had 50,000 vacancies, a stunning figure that dwarfs the total number of employees in the departments of Education, Energy, Labor, HUD, and State combined. A 2019 VA Inspector General’s report found that 96% of VA clinics studied “reported at least one severe occupational shortage” and nearly 40% had 20 severe staffing shortages.

These are 50,000 missing doctors, nurses, practitioners, and administrators to serve more than nine million veterans who rely on VA care. Failure to fill these positions has led to the closing of internal, PTSD, ENT and clinics across the country. Even a veteran’s woodshop program just outside my own district was shuttered.

While the VA’s enfeeblement predates Trump, its continued atrophy is by design, as VA Secretary Robert Wilkie all but acknowledged last year when he testified that “I would not be honest with you if I told you that my focus would be filling [department] vacancies.”

Administration appointees have made existing problems worse by targeting employee benefits and labor protections and pulverizing agency morale with an inexorable push toward privatization, to say nothing of Trump’s catastrophic pandemic mismanagement and U.S. Postal Service sabotage that especially hurt veterans.

These cuts and systematic inattention fit a tragic pattern, as Trump’s remarks in France mirror the contempt he showed for troops injured in Iraq this past January when 100 U.S. troops suffered concussion symptoms following an Iranian airstrike on Al-Asad Air Base in Baghdad.

Asked to comment on that attack, Trump dismissed their injuries as headaches and said “No, I don’t consider them very serious injuries.”

In 1998, I co-founded the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force to bring attention to the hidden affliction of traumatic brain injury, or TBI. TBI is a serious injury, and no mere headache.

TBI is also a signature injury among service members, putting them at increased risk of long-term health issues including depression, dementia, seizures and problems with social functioning. Nearly 414,000 U.S. service members were diagnosed with TBIs between 2000 and 2019 and more than 185,000 veterans who use VA for their care have been diagnosed with at least one TBI.

Congress created the Assisted Living Pilot Program for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury to help TBI sufferers. After declaring it a success, the Trump administration ended the program in 2017.

Following Trump’s remarks after the Iranian airstrike, our task force wrote to the Defense Department demanding answers on how many soldiers suffered brain injury. The Inspector General notified us that it would investigate but has provided no more information or follow-up on the extent of soldiers’ wounds. Cooperation with this administration, even to aid vets, does not exist.

Fixing veteran care is a titanic mission. Congress must provide more support, such as paid family leave. Planning for future and not prior needs is critical where the over-75 veterans’ population will double this decade. If we can fund the Defense Department, we can do the same to care for the women and men who bear the wounds of service.

That Trump called American soldiers who gave their lives in the cause of freedom “losers” and “suckers” is abhorrent. But his attempts to shrink or steal health benefits from women and injured in service to America may be worse.

A veteran himself, Rep. Pascrell has led the advancement of brain injury policy on Capitol Hill to support members of America’s armed forces suffering from traumatic brain injuries. Pascrell co-founded the Congressional Traumatic Brain Injury Task Force in 1998 and has served as task force co-chair since its inception.

In a previous and widely-circulated op-ed, Rep. Pascrell argued that no one in America has done more to “defund” the police than Donald Trump himself. Today’s op-ed highlights a similar hypocrisy of Trump’s given his propensity to use the military as a political prop while privately degrading servicemembers and their sacrifices.

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