Veterans Day marches onto the scene this year with something added to the nation's annual recognition of the men and women who have worn their country's uniform. It is a heightened awareness of the current armed forces' need for sufficient qualified personnel -- the veterans of tomorrow. The presidential campaign contributed to that awareness. The new administration in Washington is expected to find decisions on the B-1 and the MX less urgent than decisions on how to maintain the necessary manpower: pay indexed to inflation? increased benefits? the draft?
At some points the policies for present and future veterans coincide. For example, ever since World War II one of the most nationally constructive veterans' programs has been the GI Bill to provide assistance for post-discharge education and training. It seems eminently reasonable to be considering ways of fairly extending time limits for Vietnam era veterans to take advantage of such benefits -- and of assuring similar benefits for men and women who join the current armed forces. Max Cleland, the head of the Veterans Administration, has called for a peacetime GI Bill not only to serve today's veterans but to provide an additional incentive for volunteering to join the armed forces.
The latter need not only the people who make a career of military service but a steady resupply of young troops and specialists who serve limited terms. The country needs the development of their talents in civilian life, and they themselves need such development to find satisfying and productive work. It would serve these purposes for President-elect Reagan to follow through on his campaign promise to restore the GI Bill.
Mr. Reagan also called for military pay "comparable to that in the private sector." And after the election he confirmed his general adherence to the Republican platform, which contains a promise to index military pay and allowances to portect personnel from inflation.
We have questions about the strict indexing of anyone's pay to inflation. Which measure of inflation should be used, for example? Does pay go down when inflation goes down?
Rather, the jobs done in the armed services should be evaluated and paid for at the level to obtain the personnel to fill them. After last year's disappointments in recruiting, the armed services say that, for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, they reached 100 percent of their recruiting goals. The next acknowledged problem is "retention," how to encourage people to stay in the servies longer. Here it is a matter not only of dollars and cents, as in the increased enlistment bonuses advocated by the Republicans, but of training oppotunities, living arrangements, nondiscriminatory policies up and down the line.
Mr. Reagan has opposed the draft registration ordered by President Carter. But some argue that a draft itself will be necessary to meet America's peacetime defense needs. Still, as long as recruitment goals are being met, such questions arise as who and how many people would have to be drafted? And which of the volunteers would they be expected to replace? The Reagan administration ought to explore the situation thoroughly.
With all the new attention to the "veterans of tomorrow," the veterans of today, of course, must not be overlooked. This is not likely, since there are now more than 30 million of them, more than six times the number when the Veterans Administration was established a half century ago. And this year the country spent $20.6 billion for their needs. Beginning in 1990, it is estimated that more than half of all American men over 65 will be veterans. As it is, only about one in every five eligible for various benefits applies for them.
There should be the kind of training and employment efforts, along with the general revitalization of the US economy, that will help keep veterans from falling to the levels of need which can trigger veterans' benefits. (Veterans over 65 are by legal definition seen to be "disaled" and thus eligible for pensions if their incomes are below certain figures.) And veterans themselves, so many of whom demonstrated the capacities of self-reliance on the battlefield, should join with other Americans in building the country to the limits of their ability rather than accepting more than is their due. As the bill mounts for veterans' pensions, for example, the practice of "double-dipping" into other government benefits becomes plainly unacceptable.
All this may be on the country's mind as Veterans Day arrives. But let it not muffle the trupets of praise and gratitude for those men and women who gave so much of themselves for their country's defense.