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Congressman talks with vets about benefits, Iraq war

They came to talk about veteran’s issues, from the rising cost of prescription drugs to health care funding for former soldiers.

During a roundtable discussion between south end veterans and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen Thursday, however, talk turned to the Iraq war and continued terrorism across the globe.

Larsen said the terrorist attacks in London earlier in the day showed that al-Qaida has evolved, yet is still able to operate.

“Fighting these terrorists means military action,” Larsen said. “Fighting terrorism means trying to undermine the very philosophy that these people are trying to impose on so many.”

The 2nd District congressman said many of the big things have already been accomplished in the fight against terrorism; the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence reform and the increase of forces on America’s borders.

It’s more of the medium- and small-sized security actions that are needed now to fill in the gaps, he said.

The meeting with veterans at American Legion Post 141 was the latest in a series of discussions with vets that Larsen has hosted in Island, Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

Larsen said it’s a critical time for veterans, especially given the recent revelation by the Department of Veterans Affairs that the agency was facing a $1 billion shortfall this year in the budget for veterans’ health care.

While the Senate has passed a $1.5 billion supplemental bill to cover the shortfall, the House has only approved a $975 million supplemental bill.

“I was disappointed that we did not and could not do something more in the House,” Larsen said.

He asked South Whidbey veterans to press their colleagues across the country to make a political push in support of the Senate’s amount.

“It is clear that the budget shortfall is real,” he said. “It is clear that the demand for health care is real. And Congress needs to step up and show that its commitment to veterans is real.”

The veterans gathering touched on many topics.

Larsen and the vets talked about the creation of a north Puget Sound veterans’ outreach clinic – discussions are focusing on Bellingham now, Larsen said - as well as prescription drug costs and increasing co-pay contributions.

The congressman also touched on legislation that’s been active in the House, such as bigger bonuses for soldiers already in and those about to sign up, as well as better health benefits for Reserve soldiers who are called up, and a next-generation GI Bill for troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans came ready to press Larsen on troublesome issues.

Dick Francisco, of the U.S. Marine Corps League Whidbey Island Detachment, asked about offsets to retirement benefits once known by its Veterans Affairs’ label, “concurrent receipt.”

Concurrent receipt covers how retirements benefits are reduced based by on amount of disability payments a veteran receives. The higher the disability pay a veteran receives, the bigger the cut to the soldier’s retirement pay.

“When is that going to be changed? That’s the most asinine, unfair tax that I’ve ever heard of,” Francisco said.

Larsen said a fix would cost about $50 billion.

But it could be spread out over five years or more, he added, considering the Defense Department budget tops $405-410 billion each year.

There have already been two attempts to repair concurrent receipt.

“We should just fix this thing and fix it once,” Larsen said.

Herb Weissblum, an Army veteran who served in World War II and the Korean War, criticized the divisive debate over the Iraq war.

“I get tired of what’s going on in Washington, with the organized, malevolent campaign to discredit the president,” Weissblum said.

“We think that is undermining the status of this country in the eyes of the world, that it is undermining our servicemen, who are on the line, risking their lives,” he said.

“We love our country,” Weissblum added. “And we don’t want to see some of our elected officials trying to tear down, and trying to make this president a failure. Because it is not helping our country.”

“I want to be successful in Iraq,” Larsen said. “Every American wants the U.S. and the other countries there to be successful. We want the Iraqis to have a representative government, to be able to live securely, to have no insurgency.

“No one person has a monopoly on best ideas,” he added.

“I’ve been critical of the president’s policies at times,” Larsen said. “Because I think we need to continue to have the debate about the policies in this country, to get things right.

“We’re strong enough to have a good debate, and have our disagreements, and take our votes and then move on,” Larsen said.

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