The Issues: Veterans' Benefits

Old Veteran John Savage, denied VA benefits

CBS News continues an election-year series titled "What Does It Mean To You?" focused on where the presidential candidates stand on major issues and how a vote for one or the other candidate might affect average people's lives.

In this report, CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann looks at the Bush and Kerry plans for dealing with the healthcare crisis facing millions of America's veterans.

Since his stroke, World War II veteran John Savage's real fight is for his health. And the helping hand he needs now is not coming from the government he served in uniform.

Savage went to war at 17, a redheaded Navy radio operator. Now 77, he's frail and about to lose his health care coverage.

His fallback, the Veterans Administration, recently toughened its enrollment requirements and rejected his application.

"I always thought this was my ace in the hole as far as the V.A., and now, looks like they don't want me," Savage says.

The V.A., long in crisis, remains overburdened – too few resources trying to service too many vets. Just getting an initial disability exam typically takes five months.

Like Savage, millions of vets feel betrayed.

"We earned this benefit, you know. We're not some whining special interest group. We're somebody who a promise was made to and now we expect you to deliver," said American Legion National Commander John Brieden,

Pressures on the V.A. system will keep growing, from aging WW II vets to the youngest vets now returning from Iraq.

John Kerry supports an extensive overhaul, turning V.A. healthcare into an entitlement program, open to any vet.

"Your country will take care of you because you took care of us," Kerry has told veterans.

Veterans groups support Kerry's approach, which would cost billions more a year and make funding for healthcare mandatory.

President Bush opposes that mandatory funding. But during his term, funding for V.A. health care has jumped 40 percent.

"Our government will honor our commitment to vets, past, present, future," the president says.

Still, the V.A. system remains overloaded. And bets like John Savage, who were once a band of brothers, are now, in effect, fighting each other for the V.A.'s scarce resources.

"God forbid I need to get help as far as hospitalization, things like that. I don't know where I'd turn to," says Savage.

For service to his country, John Savage wants a commander-in-chief who will fight for him.