Monday, February 28, 2005

Kerry: Support the Troops at Home

Our military needs a better ally at home
By John Kerry

Monday, February 28, 2005

I recently traveled to Iraq where I was proud to visit some of America's most remarkable young men and women.

I wish I was as proud about what is happening in Washington, where "supporting the troops" is often confused with simply supporting the administration's policies. Sometimes supporting the troops means challenging the policies that put them in harm's way or harm the families who pray for their safe return. It also means Congress has a special responsibility to our troops - both in the field and at home.

Our troops must have every tool they need to succeed. Every recent commitment of American military power, including the "air war" in Kosovo, has required sizeable ground forces, at the very least to provide post-conflict security. There's just no technological substitute for boots on the ground.

I introduced the Strengthening America's Armed Forces and Military Family Bill of Rights Act to permanently increase the size of the military by 30,000 to 40,000 in the Army and 10,000 in the Marine Corps to meet challenges of the new century.

Let me be clear: This is not a proposal to increase U.S. forces in Iraq. But our experience there is instructive. Our ground forces are stretched. The Army recently began calling back retirees ranging in age from their mid-40s to late 60s. The Guard and Reserve are stressed, too. The chief of the Army Reserve warns that his troops are "rapidly degenerating into a broken force" and at this rate couldn't meet future missions.

If we had begun expanding the military in 2003, when Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and many of us began calling for it, our military would not be as overstretched as it is today.

We need a Military Family Bill of Rights, a set of policies enshrined in law to meet the needs of military families.

Investing in military families isn't just compassionate - it's a smart investment in our national security. The Military Family Bill of Rights would:

Expand TRICARE to all Guard and Reserve members, whether mobilized or not. Members failing physicals impacts combat readiness, yet as many as one in five do not have health insurance.

Allow widows to stay in military housing for one year. For those with children, the current policy of 180 days can mean changing schools in the course of a year.

Establish a Military Family Relief Fund. Just as we let Americans donate a few dollars to finance presidential elections on their tax forms, they should be able to thank our troops.

Allow penalty-free withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts for deployment-related expenses, like increased child care.

Offer a tax credit to small businesses that make up the difference between Reserve and National Guard members' civilian and military pay.

Expand post-traumatic stress disorder programs and require more outreach. As many as one in six soldiers returning from Iraq show symptoms of PTSD, yet barely half of all VA medical centers have treatment facilities.

Increase the military death benefit. Last year I proposed increasing the benefit so that, combined with the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, the families of those who die in military service would receive $500,000. No one can put a price on a life, but the current $12,000 is insulting. The president recently embraced a formula to reach $500,000 but limited it to deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress should embrace the broader benefit for all troops, regardless of where they die, and act immediately to make it law.

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