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Berry: veterans benefits at risk

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Staff Writer

With the national debt reaching past the $7 trillion mark, veterans' benefits could be at risk, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry told a group of concerned veterans at the Highland VFW Post 4772 Jan. 15.

"We're running deficits in this country and accruing debt right now so fast that no one knows exactly what to do about it," Berry said. "Eventually, there's going to be a great public outcry to reduce spending. And one of the places you have to go when you do that is veterans' benefits because it's one of the largest entitlement programs."

Berry said the gross domestic product of the United States is a little more than $10 trillion a year. With the current situation in the nation, it is expected that the U.S. will owe more than $10 trillion within four years, an amount equal to the gross domestic product of the U.S.

"If you didn't pay anything but Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits and the other entitlements, if you only paid that and the interest on the national debt, you just barely could balance the budget," Berry said. "If you did away with ... hundreds and thousands of employees, you still couldn't balance the national budget. That's how large this deficit is.

"It is absolutely consuming our financial ability in this country. To deal with that we're going to end up putting veterans' programs and a lot of other things in great jeopardy."

A $6 billion cut to veterans' benefits has already been approved by the House of Representatives, Berry said. It is expected to be approved by the Senate soon, he said. While many legislators have tried to soften the blow, their attempts have failed, Berry said.

Berry, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the group has tried to offer amendments for cuts to veterans' services to no avail.

"Generally we're cutting taxes for the wealthy and we're cutting veterans' benefits to pay for it," Berry said. "I just don't think it's right, but they never will do away with that appropriation."

Appropriating $87 billion for rebuilding Iraq is one area where the government is spending billions of U.S. dollars unnecessarily, Berry said.

The National Guard and military reserves have become almost full-time active duty servicemen, Berry said. Because of their efforts and their continued support, they need to be provided with health insurance for themselves and their families, he said. That is an issue he is working on, he said.

"It's not right to ask them to be available to serve their country and at the same time not have at least them and their families have health care," Berry said.

VFW Quartermaster Nelson Gatewood expressed concern about the proximity of Veterans' Administration clinics to Sharp County.

The closest clinics are in West Plains and in Mountain Home, he said.

"In our area here in Sharp County and the surrounding counties we have almost 12,000 veterans and we were trying to get an outpatient clinic here," Gatewood said. "We had over 1,000 signatures for the clinic. We were told that they studied it. It didn't meet the criteria that was set down by Congress for establishing an outpatient clinic."

"The government can spend billions of dollars to explore Mars and billions more to go over and rebuild these countries that have been torn up by war or something. When these countries attack peace-loving countries we have to go over there and kick some butt to get it back in shape. They crawl back in their hole and start asking for help. Why can't we get a few dollars out of the government to establish an outpatient clinic here that would help thousands of veterans in this area? Why can't we get a little help rather than spending all of our money going to Mars and helping these countries that shouldn't be causing trouble?"

Although he said the idea of a clinic in the area had been rejected to not give up hope.

"No nation is a great nation if we can't honor our commitment to our veterans," Berry said.

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