Phil Bronstein's riveting Esquire feature on "The Shooter" -- the unnamed Navy SEAL who reportedly killed Osama Bin Laden during the May 2011 raid on the terrorist's compound in Pakistan -- is making waves, not least for claiming that that the former sailor has been deserted by his country. "[H]ere is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no healthcare, and no protection for himself or his family," Bronstein wrote.
A number of veterans have criticized the piece for its failure to accurately report on the benefits available to those who have left the service. But the article raises important issues with our nation's care for veterans. Although all veterans are eligible for government benefits, many struggle to obtain them. Perhaps more important, many (like the Shooter) perceive the system as being so broken that it may as well be closed to them. Similarly, the piece raises questions about the antiquated military retirement system, which gives nothing to sailors like the Shooter, who left the Navy after 16 years, but much to those who serve for 20 years, regardless of what they do in the service. More broadly, these questions lead to a much bigger one: What should the nation provide its veterans, and can the nation afford the current social contract with the military?
By law, all veterans are eligible for healthcare and other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, because the VA lacks the resources to treat every veteran, it prioritizes those who get access to its care, based on disability status, medical needs, and income. In practice, this closes doors to veterans without a "service-connected disability" rating. Last week's VA data shows there were 819,008 veterans waiting for such a rating, with 585,876 waiting for more than 125 days (what the VA calls its "claims backlog"). This backlog has been steadily growing over the past decade, as young and old veterans file claims at record-breaking rates. The VA currently projects the backlog will continue to grow until 2015, at which point it will see the effects of additional personnel, new computer systems, and process changes. Until then, veterans must wait to have their claims decided, a process that can take months or years.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can get into the VA healthcare system for up to five years after their discharge, and their initial claims are now being fast-tracked by the VA as well. But this approach still falls short for some veterans, because it covers only potentially service-connected ailments and does not provide any health coverage for families. And veterans must still contend with delays in seeking other benefits, such as their disability compensation, GI Bill benefits, and other programs.
So it's not exactly true, as the Esquire piece originally reported, that the Shooter will get "nothing" from his country after he leaves the Navy. But there is a perception that exists, for better or worse, that the VA is closed to new veterans. Cumulatively, the various barriers to entry (and the delays associated with each one) contribute to this perception. And the limits on VA benefits, and their ability to provide for military families, also contribute to the perception that the VA isn't doing enough for today's veterans. (A majority of servicemembers have families today, something that was not true during the mid-20th century, when the current VA benefits structure was built.) The nation could choose to do more for veterans, but doing so will cost a lot of money, at a time when budgets are being squeezed, even at the Defense Department and VA.