The commander of the nation's largest veterans organization called on Americans to pressure the president and Congress to fund health care for veterans before paying what he termed "blackmail" to countries for permission to station troops there in preparation for a possible attack on Iraq.
Visiting Kenai for a Western District American Legion four-day convention that ends today, National Commander Ronald F. Conley said, "We have so-called allies blackmailing us for permission to put our troops in their countries and at the same time we're not providing adequate health care to America's veterans.
"The American public believes all veterans are eligible for health care at Veterans Administration facilities and that the medical treatment they receive is free.
"Neither of those beliefs is true," Conley said.
"Last year, veterans paid over $1.5 billion to the VA for benefits through what's called 'third-party reimbursements.' Now (the VA) is asking for $2.1 billion this year for third-party payments, and many veterans won't be accepted for care at all."
During the convention at Kenai American Legion Post No. 20, Conley, who is from Pittsburgh, expressed concern that Kenai Peninsula veterans will not be accepted for medical care at local clinics because proposed VA budget limitations will no longer provide adequate funds for such care.
"They won't be accepted in Anchorage either," he said, of the possibility of receiving care from Alaska's sole VA medical center there.
"They'll be placed on a waiting list, and many won't see a doctor for six months," Conley said.
In recent months, Conley has written articles in American Legion magazine urging members to complete a form called "I am not a number" if they feel they have waited too long to receive medical care through the VA.
"More than 300,000 qualified veterans are waiting six months or longer between setting appointments and actually seeing VA doctors," he said in a January article.
"Some have died waiting," he said.
Conley said Friday he was not sure if any of the forms have been completed by Kenai Peninsula veterans, but said he knows some have come from the state of Alaska.
"I hope to take them to Congress in July," he said.
He said the goal of the survey campaign is to show legislators that "lives are at stake."
The American Legion also is continuing its push for a flag protection amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Conley said forms of the amendment have been introduced in both the Senate and the House.
"We will have plenty of votes in the Senate and may be two shy in the House," he said.
"Lisa (Murkowski) did sign on as a co-sponsor," added American Legion Department of Alaska Commander Chuck Unsworth Sr., who was visiting from Chugiak Post No. 33.
"The amendment will give the power to protect the American flag back to the legislature instead of the judicial branch," said Conley.
In speaking to the issue of a possible war against Iraq, Conley said the American Legion supports the president of the United States and the U.S. military.
"We do want the American people to make sure there's a separation between our people in uniform and the policy of government when people protest against war," he said.
"I would definitely compare the protests today with those against the war in Vietnam," said the Vietnam-era U.S. Air Force veteran.
"The protesters are misguided," he said.
"The regime of Saddam Hussein has set out to destroy the American way of life," he said.
Conley said the American Legion supports service men and women who have been deployed in the Mideast and said the organization is asking state legislatures to give tax breaks to those serving over there.
He said the American Legion has reinstituted a "blue star" campaign that places a banner with a blue star in the window of the home of a service person.
Wal-Mart is also supporting the program, he said. They are selling the blue star banners in their stores.
During the convention of legionnaires from Alaska posts north of Haines, Conley addressed legion members, Sons of the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary.
Approximately 300 people attended the convention in Kenai.
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