During this month’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called out my Republican colleagues for their continual attempts to cut Social Security. Many Republicans erupted in outrage, yelling that they had no such plans — despite years, legislation, on-the-record votes, you name it, proving otherwise.

After the speech, Biden challenged Republicans to back up their denials. I agree with the president: Before we can even begin to trust the GOP’s claims that they’ll no longer try to slash Social Security and Medicare, we need to see them agree to a budget that doesn’t cut a single penny from these vital benefit programs. But if Republicans are actually serious about protecting Social Security without cuts, that’s fantastic news for nearly 66 million Americans — including over eight million military veterans. Because while Social Security isn’t generally thought of as a veterans’ benefit, it is vital to those who put their lives and limbs on the line on our country’s behalf.

When a service member is killed in action, Social Security is there to support their Gold Star family with survivor benefits. For those who are seriously injured, Social Security will step in with disability benefits. And for veterans who are fortunate enough to live to old age, Social Security is there to help them retire with the security and dignity they’ve earned and deserve.

Take the case of medically-retired Army Sgt. Shaun Castle, who suffered a spinal cord injury while stationed overseas at the age of 22. He testified before Congress on what Social Security has meant to him:

“When I was determined to be eligible for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance benefits), I was on the verge of being homeless, running out of food and dealing with the ramifications from a second failed spinal cord surgery that had put me into my wheelchair permanently. … Had I not received SSDI when I did, I do not honestly know what I would have done.”

Castle is now deputy executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America — and he credits SSDI for getting him to where he is today: in a position where he can help fellow veterans get the support they need, too.

In total, nearly half of America’s veterans received these critically needed Social Security benefits in 2021. But for reasons beyond understanding, many of my same Republican colleagues who like to boast about how much they support our nation’s troops have spent their time in Congress releasing plan after plan to rip these basic benefits away from them.

I can understand that those who’ve not been to combat may not fully comprehend how important Social Security is to those of us who’ve served. But I am shocked when colleagues who have worn the uniform, like Florida Sen. Rick Scott, show a desire to take away our earned benefits.

Scott was the head of the Senate Republican campaign branch last cycle. But despite his own experiences in the military where he almost surely had brothers and sisters in arms who’d one day depend on SSDI, he released a dangerous policy agenda that would force Congress to authorize all federal programs every five years — a plan that needlessly, cruelly and continually puts Social Security, Medicare and other veterans’ benefits at risk.

Not to be outdone, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has announced his own plan to turn Social Security and Medicare into “discretionary programs” — putting them on the chopping block every 12 months.

Johnson and Scott are careful to be a shade subtle, not outright calling for cuts, though that is their clear intention. House Republicans, however, are much more blunt.

Around three-quarters of House Republicans are members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC). According to the budget plan released by the RSC last year, they hope to slash the programs and decimate middle class benefits in part by raising the retirement age to at least 70 and opening the door to privatization.

Democrats have made clear our intention to expand Social Security, funding for its improvements by requiring billionaires to finally pay their fair share of taxes. In stark contrast, Republicans have repeatedly indicated their goal — their fervent hope — to end Social Security and Medicare as we know them, despite their cries and flat-out lies on Tuesday.

The thing is, Republicans have not always opposed Social Security. They used to actively support it — until the day they decided it would more greatly benefit them as candidates to sap money out of these programs to pay for tax breaks requested by the corporations that fund their campaigns. Five-star Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who happened to be Republican, was even the president who signed into law the expansion of Social Security to include disability insurance. In a letter to his brother, he wrote that there was “a tiny splinter group” that wanted to end Social Security, adding, “Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Unfortunately, that tiny splinter group has now controlled the Republican Party for decades — and tragically, it seems to have commandeered the larger party’s agenda at the expense of veterans, people with disabilities and older Americans.

Veterans have fought for us, time after time after time. It is our duty to fight for them, too. Not in war zones thousands of miles away, but on U.S. soil — on the land they risked so much to defend.

Democrats will always show up for veterans. Now, I’m calling on my Republican colleagues to prove that they actually care about doing the same. During and after the State of the Union, they claimed they no longer support gutting these programs. If that claim is true — if they really do want to protect the most vulnerable among us — then they must back up those words with action, joining with Democrats to protect and expand Social Security.

Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, represents Illinois in the U.S. Senate.

(Social Security Administration/Facebook)

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