ALBUQUERQUE, N.M — Wounded warriors implored Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a town hall meeting Wednesday not to cut health care and other benefits for servicemembers and veterans.
Retired Sgt. Victor Rivera complained about the latest budget agreement reached by Congress which would cut the cost-of-living-adjustment for veterans by 1 percent, effective in December 2015.
“Please don’t take our money,” Rivera told Hagel at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
“Let me assure you that all disabled … will be exempt from any adjustments in the budget growth to benefits,” Hagel responded. “We’ve got two years to fix that particular problem. It will be fixed.”
Sgt. Maj. Clifford Lovejoy praised Brooke and expressed concern about what would happen if the medical center lost Defense Department funding.
“We’re not going to do anything that would inhibit the continued progress of this institution,” Hagel said. “We’re going to continue to make the kind of resource commitments that are required.”
But Hagel said some benefit cuts to service members and veterans appear inevitable.
“The current set of obligations we have — based on what projections are out into the future — is most likely unsustainable,” he told the crowd.
An elderly amputee expressed concern about the budget situation’s impact on younger veterans.
“Now I’m pretty senior, so probably I’m OK,” retired Col. Stan Thomas said. “But there’s a lot of [younger] folks in this room that fall into another category. They’re at risk.”
Hagel was also asked about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and whether the sacrifices of those who took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom were in vain.
“In eight years we did accomplish what we set out to do,” Hagel said. “If we analyzed what Iraq is today versus what Iraq was when we went into Iraq, it’s a different country… You all did what you were asked to do, and I think you did it as well as it could have been done… So I don’t agree with the analyses that lives were wasted at all. I just — I don’t think that’s true, and I think it’s unfortunate that there are people out there saying that.”
Hagel earlier toured the medical center — one of the military’s premier facilities — and met with patients and staff. Brooke houses DOD’s only burn center and only Level I trauma center in the United States. Its Center for the Intrepid specializes in advanced rehabilitative care for Wounded Warriors and has fostered technological breakthroughs.
Hagel later flew to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where he met with base officials and toured Sandia National Laboratories, the engineering arm of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Speaking with reporters, he addressed former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ new memoir for the first time.
In the book, Gates is highly critical of President Barack Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan and the White House’s relationship with the military, according to journalists who were given pre-release copies. Gates led the Pentagon in 2006-11 during the Bush and Obama administrations.
Asked if it was inappropriate for a former defense secretary to publicly criticize the president he served, Hagel said, “I’ve never second-guessed motivations on why people do things…I think it’s up to each individual to make that judgment on his or her own.”