By Joseph L. Galloway, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, 2-9-05. Forwarded by Jean D. Beard

WASHINGTON - The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, David Chu, stuck his head in a hornet's nest recently when he commented in an interview that the growth of military retiree and veteran's benefits in recent years was hampering America's ability to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chu, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, was reported as saying “Congress has gone too far in expanding military retiree benefits and starting to crowd out two things: first, our ability to reward the person who is bearing the burden right now in Iraq or Afghanistan … and second ,we are undercutting our ability to finance the new gear that is going to make that military person successful five, 10, 15 years from now.”

The military retirees, almost all of whom are veterans of one, two or even three of America's wars, are taking a very dim view of Chu's idea that their benefits are hampering America's ability to fight current and future wars.

“I wonder if Mr. Chu ever considered how hard it was at Normandy, in the jungles of the South Pacific, or the freezing battlefields of Korea as he sits in his office and denigrates these old warriors seeking benefits they earned,” retired Army Col. Harry Riley of Crestview, Fla., wrote in an angry e-mail.

The national commander of the American Legion, Thomas P. Cadmus, wrote the Wall Street Journal his own hot letter: “I resent the implication that veterans are nothing more than greedy pigs feeding off the government trough,” Cadmus wrote. “His remarks … are a slap in the face to every veteran who took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies.”

Another retired Army colonel, William F. Sullivan of Normandy Park, Wash., also wrote a letter to the newspaper. “Retirement benefits, health care and pension were a carrot on the stick to compensate for moving my household 23 times in 22 years of marriage; being separated from my family for four years; having my daughters attend three high schools; having my son attend 11 schools in 12 years; and owning one house for three weeks and another for nine months before having to sell them at a loss because of changes in orders.”

We need to be living up to our promises to the people who wore the nation's uniforms for 20 or 30 years, whose families bore the strain of frequent transfers and moves and long, long absences of their breadwinner serving in one or another combat zone. They were promised lifelong health care and a decent pension for faithful service.

That Congress has, over the last four years, begun keeping some of those promises is not something members of Congress should be ashamed of. Nor is it something the veterans should be ashamed of.

Better we “waste” $28 billion on keeping our promises to veterans, retirees, military widows and orphans than blow it on misguided weapons and hardware systems.

Better we do the honorable thing for the first time in living memory and begin spending enough money to ensure that there will be beds available in our Veterans Administration hospitals for the new disabled veterans from today's wars, while continuing to provide health care for the aging veterans of our past wars.

The Pentagon has suggested cutting $40 billion in outdated Navy and Air Force weapons procurement programs over six years. It could easily whack much more and get rid of programs that fund and build weapons for wars we will never fight, or wars we have already won.

That kind of money would build us an Army strong enough to do all the jobs David Chu's bosses find for soldiers to do. It would fund decent benefits for some decent and honorable American military veterans. It would modernize the VA's hospitals and staff them with good medical help.

About the author: In addition to being the senior military correspondent for for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Joseph L. Galloway was the co-author of the national best-seller We Were Soldiers Once … and Young. Readers may e-mail him at jgalloway@krwashington.com.