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Dems: We Can Do Better For Vets

Democratic presidential candidates are marking Veterans Day with an attack on the Bush administration's treatment of former service members, and, outlines of their own plans for improving benefits.

Military benefits have become a point of debate in the campaign. The Democrats argue that veterans and members of the military face hardships that have been perpetuated by the commander in chief. President Bush argues that his 2004 budget contains the largest increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs ever requested.

Democratic candidates Wesley Clark, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman are calling for better health care and other benefits for those who served their country.

"Walking away from our veterans is wrong and in a Kerry administration it will be a thing of the past," the Massachusetts senator and Vietnam veteran said in remarks prepared for a round of appearances in Iowa on Monday.

Clark, a retired Army general, says he would spend $2 billion more annually than Mr. Bush spends on health care for veterans. In addition, he says his broader health care plan would provide medical insurance to the roughly 240,000 guard and reserve members who only have coverage when they are on active duty.

Clark and Kerry have been especially critical of the president for allowing thousands of veterans to languish on waiting lists for care at VA hospitals. And they use the issue to remind voters that they served in the active military, while Mr. Bush did not.

"When I hear about how we're not giving our veterans their due and when I hear about how we're shortchanging our soldiers, I take it personally," Clark said in a speech prepared for an appearance Monday in Arizona.

There are other veterans issues the candidates pledge to address:

  • Clark said he would prevent the closure of schools on military bases, provide support for homeless veterans, and immediately allow disabled veterans to collect military retirement benefits along with their disability benefits. He also proposed "A National Soldiers' Memorial" to honor American troops who died in Haiti, Somalia, Iraq and other conflicts that don't already have a national memorial.
  • Kerry would provide mortgage insurance for National Guard and Reserve members to assure that members who see their civilian pay cut when they are called to active duty won't lose their homes.
  • Lieberman called for "a decent wage" along with special compensation for housing, health care and other services so veterans can provide for their families. The Connecticut senator promised that if elected he would not cut military pay and would keep Defense Department schools open.

    "On this Veterans Day, particularly with 135,000 soldiers on duty in Iraq and others in the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere ... we should commit ourselves to take good care of them the other 364 days of the year," Lieberman said Sunday while campaigning in New Hampshire.

    In a campaign release defending his record, Mr. Bush noted his increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs and said he increased the budget for the agency more in his first two years in office than in the previous six years.

    He said he also took the unprecedented step of allowing veterans with a prescription from private physicians to have the VA fill them.