Tom O’Hara: Don’t thank me for my service, just send my disability check

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It’s Veterans Day on Wednesday and I’m even more excited than usual.

In researching this column, I learned that as a Vietnam veteran I may be eligible to collect VA disability benefits because I have diabetes – even though I’m sure my tedious year at Phu Cat Air Force Base has nothing to do with my blood-sugar levels today.

It’s a great time to be a veteran. Gov. Rick Scott and his team are doing everything they can to lure more veterans to Florida. We already have 1.6 million of them here and I doubt they need much coaxing to flee Ohio and New Jersey.

Nonetheless, the state has waived out-of-state college fees for vets and offered a buffet of other perks. The college fee waiver is a nifty ruse because few current vets have any interest in getting a college degree.

The state has a Department of Veterans Affairs that spends $111 million each year to help more and more vets feed at the government trough.

This is very good politics because veterans are overwhelmingly old, white and male. In other words, they vote Republican. And they vote in droves.

About 70 percent of America’s 22 million veterans voted in the 2012 presidential election, compared with 56.5 percent of all Americans. Among the vets 65 and older, more than 75 percent cast a ballot.

In the 2014 midterm elections, vets voted for Republicans by a 20-percentage-point margin over Democrats in House races,  according to The Washington Post.

But politicians of every stripe pander to veterans. Even if they don’t vote for you, you sound patriotic and sensitive if you praise them and approve billions of dollars in benefits for them.

Veterans account for only 9 percent of the adult population. (I wonder how many people even know a veteran.) Nonetheless, they have extraordinary sway with politicians.

Even as the percent of congressmen who served in the military plummets (less than 20 percent today compared with 73 percent in 1971), their urge to throw money at vets escalates.

“More than 1.3 million veterans of the Vietnam era received $21 billion in disability pay last year. From Afghanistan and Iraq, the cost was $9.3 billion – but it is growing fast,” the Los Angles Times reported last year.

In 1991, the total cost for VA disability payments was $16.6 billion; it’s $50 billion today, the Times reported.

Even the Heritage Foundation – a very conservative think tank – is amazed at the exploding veterans largesse.

“Nearly 60,000 disabled veterans received cash benefits from three different federal programs simultaneously. More than 2,300 veterans received $100,000 or more in annual benefits each, and the highest annual benefit amounted to more than $200,000,” according to a 2014 foundation article.

OK. Where do I sign up?

Some guy is getting more than $200,000 by triple dipping into VA disability, military retirement and Social Security disability. And my guess is that he’s a white guy who votes Republican because he’s so disgusted by government waste.

I assume this veteran was unperturbed if he had to exaggerate a bit for his benefits. It’s not hard to game the system, however, because it appears VA staff are encouraging the fraud.

“A 2014 paper in Psychological Injury and Law identified ‘collusive lying’ between disability-benefits applicants and VA staff as one possible problem” for the soaring costs, according to the Heritage Foundation.

Frankly, I’m just jealous. I have not been paying attention. I only recently discovered that you could get a “V” for veteran put on your driver license and get discounts at Home Depot and movie theaters.

However, I’m going for the big time now: the diabetes claim.

In 2001, the VA added Type 2 diabetes to the list of disabilities. The disease has not been definitely linked to Agent Orange, but veterans groups lobbied to include it, according to the LA Times.

“Through 2013, the number of veterans receiving compensation for diabetes climbed from 46,395 to 398,480,” the Times reported.

So if you see me on Veterans Day, don’t thank me for my service. Just give me directions to the Veterans Affairs disability claims office so I can get started on my paperwork.

Tom O’Hara is a veteran newspaperman. He is the former managing editor of The Palm Beach Post and the Plain Dealer in Ohio. 

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