Did the government make promises to veterans about health care for life?

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``To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan'' _ the mission statement of the Department of Veterans Affairs, from Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address.

While American troops are at war in Iraq, other struggles are being fought on the homefront.

Men and women who served this country in times of war and in times of peace are now waging battle to receive the health care many of them believe they were promised.

But unearthing and defining that guarantee _ whether a concretely legal or inherently moral one _ is like trying to hit a moving target.

Veterans Affairs records show that as early as 1636, those in charge of the fledgling country recognized the need to provide for those laying down lives to protect it. At that time, the leaders of the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts stated: ``If any person shall be sent forth as a soldier and shall return maimed he shall be maintained competently by the Colony during his life.''Yet by Revolutionary War times in the 1780s, a Pennsylvania regiment mutinied and surrounded Congress _ then in Philadelphia _ with bayonets to get pay for services rendered.

``Historically, in the main, there is a pattern of mistreating those who did the fighting,'' said military historian Steven Rosswurm _ who also teaches American History at Lake Forest College near Chicago _ in a phone interview from his Illinois home.

In 1924, World War I veterans were promised a $1,000 bonus with payment due in 1945, according to the Public Broadcasting Corporation's Web site for its ``NOW'' television program.

As the Great Depression deepened in 1932, some 12,000 to 15,000 veterans and their families converged on on the nation's capital to demand immediate payment of the bonus. Named ``The Bonus Army,'' it eventually grew to 25,000, according to the Library of Congress.

FBI documentation on the NOW Web site reveals the marchers were fingerprinted, and many were investigated, due to their involvement in the march.

When the Senate sided with President Herbert Hoover _ who feared the $2 billion cost of paying the bonuses _ riots ensued.

Hoover authorized clearing the Bonus Army camp by the military. Under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, troops _ including a machine-gun squadron and tanks _ destroyed the camp; families were dispersed with tear gas, FBI papers show.

Fast forward to 1944 and the GI Bill of Rights. After pressure from veterans' organizations and legislators, the bill later credited with saving the post-war economy was born, despite intense Senate wrangling and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's long-standing aversion to what he termed privileges for veterans, said Mark Olanoff of The Retired Enlisted Association. TREA is a national organization that works through legislative and judicial efforts to retain veterans benefits.

``When FDR came into office, he signed all kinds of bills that took benefits away from vets,'' Olanoff said.

Miscommunication and misconstrued promises are not unusual, said John Waterbrook, veterans contract service officer with the Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs.

As a private contractor working at the Jonathan M.

Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Walla Walla, Waterbrook guides claim-seeking veterans through the forms and printed maze of questions. ``I love my job. I love helping veterans _ every one that comes through this door.''He sees them all, from older veterans whose needs lean toward elder-care to young adults returning from Iraq.

There is a difference between the generations about what is expected from the VA in terms of health care, Waterbrook said.

Vietnam veterans returned home filled with anger at fighting in a war in which they felt ``no honor, no kudos,'' he said. Many were afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sought medical care for it relatively soon.

It was a different story for the soldiers who came before them, Waterbrook said.

``After WWII, people did not want to take advantage of the government...patriotism kept them from it.''The men and women who returned from overseas then were not anxious to make any sort of benefit claim, he said.

``Those folks had a different motivation at the time; they had come home from a war that had been broadly supported by the nation and much of the world,'' he said.

WWII veterans felt they had a relationship with their government, Waterbrook said.

``They felt they had provided a service. They wanted to fight.'' It was considered an act of loyalty, he said.

True, some who survived the war suffered what was referred to then as ``shell shock,'' Waterbrook said. But communities forgave their aberrant behavior. ``They had protected the country.''Still, it occurred to almost no one to make good on the promise of free health care then, he said. A perceived reliance on government was shunned by most, to be used only in dire emergencies.

``Mostly, they were just glad to get out,'' Waterbrook said.

Benefits for veterans have been a struggle after every war, said Waterbrook, who holds a doctorate in education.

Funding for Veterans Affairs has shifted with every change of the political winds, he said. ``Because Congress has funded every sort of social program, it hasn't left enough money for the veterans' earned benefits.''

In 1956, Congress altered the language in the legislation guaranteeing medical and dental care for those who fought for their country.

In what is known as the U.S. Code, in section Title 10, Subtitle A, part B, wording changed on June 7; from stating, in part, veterans ``shall, upon request, be given medical and dental care in any facility of any uniformed service'' to ``may, upon request, be given medical and dental care in any facility of any uniformed service, subject to the availability of space and facilities and the capabilities of the medical and dental staff.''It is an important legal distinction, said attorney John Reese. ``Legally, `shall' is mandatory; they have to do it.

`May' is a discretionary word.''Reese, who held an ROTC commission at Washington State University in 1953, went into the Air Force as an assistant staff judge advocate in 1956. He has practiced law in Walla Walla since 1958.

Yet recruiters continued to convey to people they would get free health care for life, TREA's Olanoff said.

Not only did the Department of Defense not change its rhetoric, but it failed to inform the men and women the new phrasing impacted, he said.

``In my opinion, the federal government had a legal obligation to notify people. If you were an insurance company and knew that laws changed and didn't inform your beneficiaries, you'd get sued.''The action was listed in the Federal Register, ``but the average citizen does not know about the Federal Register,'' he said.

The bad news began to come to light when bases began closing in 1988, in post-Cold War peace.

``People asked `Where am I supposed to get free health care?' That's when they found out there never was, isn't, and probably never will be free health care,'' Olanoff said.

Medical services that military retirees had taken for granted began to dissipate.

While all veterans are entitled to free care for service-connected illness and injuries, in the past those who served 20 or more years and left the military with a good conduct record also received free treatment for any health need, especially if they were below certain economic lines.

It all served to load the rolls, Waterbrook said. ``We can't take care of the whole world.''No better example than Walla Walla, he feels.

Although the local VA serves about 70,000 in its cachement area, there are just six acute-care beds in the medical center. It also does not offer all typical hospital services, especially emergency-room services, he said.

If a client ends up going to a non-VA facility with a nonservice-connected ailment, there's a chance he or she will get stuck with the bill, Waterbrook acknowledged. (See related story on Gale Long.)Himself a veteran who suffered injury while enlisted, Waterbrook is unhappy with the situation, he said.

``This benefit is earned by the soldier. It is not a giveaway program, not a social program, he said. ``The enlisted men (and women) are the front line of our force.''But even retired soldiers get tired of fighting the rules, Waterbrook said. ``You can talk to (Sen.) Patty McMurray or (Rep.) Cathy McMorris, but those are two people. What can two people do?''

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