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Congress And Vets

WITH the onset of Operation Desert Storm, both the White House and Congress have just about deified the American soldier. Some 100 different veterans bills have sailed through with hardly a dissenting vote. The gushing political enthusiasm for America's bravest has been so quick and strong since Jan. 16, you'd almost think it's always been like this. Almost. While the administration and the 102nd Congress proudly shout their ``ayes'' for veterans, little is mentioned about their selective targeting of veterans in the 101st Congress. Some of the more notable victims:

Widows and widowers of veterans were stripped of death benefits upon remarrying; surviving spouses of no other federal recipients lost these benefits (some saw their benefits increase).

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The definition of ``incompetent'' veterans eligible for disability benefits was narrowed; much larger groups of federal recipients - like those receiving Social Security, where trims could have saved much more money but were politically unacceptable - retained previous definitions.

When a veteran was killed in action, the government used to chip in toward the cost of a tombstone the family selected. No more. Families of soldiers killed in the Persian Gulf will have to foot the entire bill.

Are the new bills meant to reinstate lost programs or at least compensate in some way? Hardly. The 101st Congress put a cap on all domestic spending - the well from which the Department of Veterans Affairs gets its money - and no one has dared to try lifting it. A piece of legislation can be passed with all the votes and cheers in the world, but it means nothing until appropriations time comes around. Every new program getting passed will require new money to fund it, but with the spending cap still scr ewed on tightly, guess how effective the programs are going to be.

None of this is new. Only the hype disguising it is. For eight years the Reagan-Bush administration fought hard to put better guns in the hands of the US military. For eight years it also systematically dismantled the one organization created specifically to care for the soldier after he's put his gun away. With a strategy developed by David Stockman and continued by George Bush, the decade-long assault on Veterans Administration funding has gutted disability compensation, home loans, education, and job training, while its attack on medical care - the ultimate promise made in exchange for the ultimate sacrifice - has been positively crippling.

Of course the Bush administration will trumpet the granting of the largest VA budget in history, with a $1 billion increase over last year's. But the overwhelming majority of that money is eaten up by employee pay raises and inflation. Very little of it actually trickles into a health-care system that most experts agree has long been a shambles.

The president is hardly alone in wearing two faces here. He has good company from many in Congress, with perhaps Rep. G.V. ``Sonny'' Montgomery (D) of Mississippi, and Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming vying for the lead. True, as the powerful chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Mr. Montgomery has fought hard in the past for veterans - of World War II. His generation.

After the Vietnam war, Montgomery almost single-handedly thwarted virtually every attempt to get Agent Orange compensation legislated. He made no secret of his disgust over the issue, though that didn't stop him from grabbing center-stage when a compromise was finally reached.

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Montgomery didn't mention the stunning setback his own committee dealt him last fall when it voted against him to pass the Agent Orange legislation. Nor was there a word about how he had later tried - with the help of Senator Simpson and others - to sabotage the successful vote with a last-minute attempt to strip Agent Orange from the larger bill it was attached to. When all efforts failed, he had to endorse it.

SENATOR Simpson is solidly behind the troops and is willing to crucify newsman Peter Arnett to prove it. But has he forgotten the 1988 hearing when he publicly insulted veterans seeking Agent Orange compensation as a bunch of crybabies, cowards, and ``scab-pickers'' spreading ``hysteria''? Never mind that a huge body of scientific literature has long said there's strong reason to believe that Agent Orange exposure is linked to numerous diseases, or that the veteran is - by government policy - always sup posed to receive the benefit of the doubt.

Certainly a number of congressmen have consistently fought on behalf of veterans regardless of what headlines have been. And no doubt some of the new supporters are in it for the duration. The problem is, the duration doesn't end with peace treaties. Veterans know that's when it begins. ``It's great that everyone is thinking of veterans today,'' says John Hanson of the American Legion, ``but what will they be doing about it in three or four years? One of the many lessons of Vietnam is that different wa rs have different long-term effects on different people. We may not know the effects of the Persian Gulf war for a long time.''

It's easy to proclaim appreciation for the troops. It's a different matter when years afterward those veterans need a show of that appreciation. In the words of Larry Rivers, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars: ``We'll be monitoring what the politicians are saying now versus what they do in the future. Veterans are not going to forget what they're hearing.''

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