Foon Rhee: Our debt to veterans comes with a price tag

03/29/2013 12:00 AM

10/02/2014 10:27 AM

For nearly two years, I've been writing a series of columns for California Forum on the needs of our military veterans, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They deserve educational assistance and job training. They should get treatment for their wounds, both physical and psychological. They shouldn't have to wait so ridiculously long for benefits they have earned.

You can't really put a value on their sacrifice, but our debt to veterans does come with a price tag. That becomes clearer in an eye-opening new study out Thursday that says the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already cost nearly $2 trillion and will cost at least an additional $2 trillion – and probably much more – before it's all said and done.

"The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid," writes Linda Bilmes, a senior lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and will result in "the most expensive wars in U.S. history."

The biggest cost yet to come is long-term medical care and disability benefits for war veterans, she says. We have expanded the quality, quantity and availability of care and benefits for veterans and service members. Also, some survived wounds that would have been fatal in previous wars, more sophisticated surgeries are also more expensive, and many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are relatively young. So spending has grown dramatically and will increase further for the next 40 years.

So far, the 21-page study says, more than 886,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have received medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs and more than 783,000 have filed disability claims. Those numbers will jump as nearly 1 million who have served in the two wars leave active duty and join the 1.6 million who have been discharged so far.

Another cost is that the military will eventually have to replace much of the equipment used in the wars. Plus, the United States will be financially supporting the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Since the wars were financed with borrowed money, taxpayers will eventually have to repay that debt.

Add it all up, and it means tough budget decisions ahead, particularly in national defense.

"There will be no peace dividend, and the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be costs that persist for decades," Bilmes concludes.

A tiny percentage of Americans have fought since 9/11. Most of us haven't had to sacrifice or change our lives all that much during the war on terror.

What this study reminds us, however, is that when America goes to war, all of us end up paying, one way or another.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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