At a July 19 meeting at the Union-Bulletin, men and women who had served in World War II, Korea and elsewhere reported a wide range in what they remembered being told about free medical care.
A show of hands _ of those who enlisted and who were drafted _ revealed at least half of those in attendance recalled being promised free medical care until death.
But hard proof of recruiting assurances seems to be either missing in action or never existed in writing.
One woman attending the meeting remembered a 1946 letter from then-VA Administrator Gen. Omar Bradley of the U.S.
Army. It stated veterans would receive free health care for life, she believed.
In reality, Bradley's letter is salted with ambiguous phrases such as ``may be entitled'' and ``eligibility for each one is dependant upon the facts in the individual case.''
Others at the meeting were certain they were not in line for lifelong health care from the government.
``I wasn't promised anything,'' said Art Miller, who served as a Marine for 23 years and in the Air Force for 12. ``All I was a promised was a grouchy guy in a Smoky Bear hat to make my life miserable.''Jim McCarthy remembers it the same way. An Army officer and Vietnam veteran with 12 years each of active and reserve duty, he knew when he joined in 1963 that post-service medical care would be his responsibility, he said.
``My sense was that there were no guarantees unless I got hurt. I didn't expect any kind of special treatment,'' McCarthy said. ``My life was my own after I got out. I didn't expect anything for nothing.''John Waterbrook, veterans contract service officer at Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said that while today's recruiters have ``very specific criteria in what they can promise to entice men and women to enlist,'' historically recruiters had wide leeway of what they could offer, often tailored to fit whomever was standing before them.
For some, it meant the promise of higher education, Waterbrook said.
Those who had never left their hometown might be swayed by the hope of travel. For others, it was the free housing and health care.
``That's why I joined,'' said Walla Walla-based U.S. Army recruiter Mike Bertram. Officially, he's not allowed to talk about it, he said. ``But people do ask about what they will get when they are in active service.''They don't, however, inquire beyond that, he said.
Verna Rossevelt, Army public affair specialist in Seattle, seconded that.
``Recruiters do not routinely discuss after-service health benefits with new recruits,'' she said.
Everything that comes afterward hinges on length of service. ``Like any other job, you have to put in time to get fringe benefits and you must choose to pay into it after retirement.''Indeed, length of service and bank-account statements define the boundaries of most veterans' post-duty medical access, although the VA will always take care of the indigent, those with special health-care needs and service-connected disabilities, Waterbrook said.
For Jerry Cummins, it boils down simpler than that. When he joined the U.S. Navy, he was told he could go to Fairchild Air Force Base for free medical care for as long as he needed it, he said.
Cummins, former Walla Walla mayor and City Council member, went into the military in 1960 and completed a four-year tour of active duty.
The same month he got out, Cummins joined the Naval Reserve and retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 1983.
Recruiting promises were what the military used to hang onto people, he said. While Cummins remembers only verbal promises of health care from 1960, the current Naval Reserve's Web site echoes what he was told, ``including VA benefits. Which the hospital is a VA benefit,'' he said.
In any case, the implication was very clear at the time, Cummins feels.
``The military will take care of your health care needs for life.''