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Soldiers, Families Paying Price of Iraq War

May 23, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the costs of the war in Iraq, part two. Congressional Democrats said today they have reached a tentative deal with the White House on a war funding bill after months of battles. Leaders said they hope to send a bill to the president that he will sign.

But as NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman reported last night, the growing price of the war goes well beyond what it’s costing the government. In the second of his reports, Paul looks at some American families who are paying the price.

JAVIER LAROSA, Father of Marine: This is our son, and this is his squad.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour Economics Correspondent: A recent Saturday at a Harley dealership in Tennessee, for months, Javier and Marian LaRosa have been raising money to privately buy body armor for their son, and for the other Marines in his squadron, before they deploy to Iraq in June.

JAVIER LAROSA: We feel that, if these guys are going to go and put their lives on the line, the least that we can do to bring them back alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: The LaRosas are a symbol of the roughly one million American families paying for the war in Iraq.

JAVIER LAROSA: And God bless you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or at least this man thinks they’re a symbol of those paying for the war: Robert Hormats, who served under Presidents Bush I, Reagan, and Carter, and has for years been vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a wing of the world’s largest investment bank.

To Hormats, families buying body armor for their children vividly shows why the Iraq war differs from any other in American history, that those fighting it are bearing nearly all of the costs, while the rest of us aren’t paying at all.

ROBERT HORMATS, Investment Banker: Americans haven’t paid higher taxes. They haven’t engaged in the purchase of war bonds. They haven’t had to sacrifice through rationing. They haven’t planted victory gardens. Every other war, there’s been a sacrifice on the homefront to help those people, support those people fighting abroad. None this time.

Hidden costs of war

Joseph Stiglitz
Columbia University
The richest Americans have had huge tax cuts. No sacrifice at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, claims Hormats, the cost of the war, at least $400 billion thus far, and eventually perhaps $2 trillion or more, has been hidden from the vast majority of Americans.

ROBERT HORMATS: This war has been financed essentially with borrowing, which has been off the books through supplementals.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, points out Joe Stiglitz, once a key economic adviser to President Clinton...

JOSEPH STIGLITZ, Columbia University: The richest Americans have had huge tax cuts. No sacrifice at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: For a big-city reporter then, with no family or friends in Iraq, a beneficiary of tax cuts every year of the war, it felt almost embarrassing to be in Tennessee with the LaRosas.

I don't mean to personalize this too much, but are you in some sense resentful that people like, say, myself, bear no costs in this war?

JAVIER LAROSA: I'm not angry at you, because you personally bear no sacrifice, OK? I am calling on the nation. We did it in World War II. I am angry that the rest of the nation is not sacrificing more.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is Hormats' point, almost exactly, made in detail in his new book, "The Price of Liberty."

ROBERT HORMATS: The people who are fighting the war are not getting as much as they need. They're not getting as much armor. And, of course, as we see, when they're injured, they're not getting the help they need at home.

PAUL SOLMAN: Given that the total cost, big as it may be, is just a small fraction of our almost $14 trillion-a-year economy, perhaps that's not so surprising.

ROBERT HORMATS: As a portion of GDP, as a portion of the economy, this war is very small compared to, say, Vietnam, which was 10 percent of GDP, Korea, which was 15 percent of GDP, World War II, 45 percent of GDP. The whole military budget this time is less than 5 percent of GDP, so it's easier to sidestep that issue.

Financial problems for wounded vets

Former Sgt. Brad Heun
U.S. Army
That's another lawyer's fee. And so that's just -- you know, why is a soldier having to pay for all these lawyers to do these appeals?

PAUL SOLMAN: But for the one million or so American families who are fighting the war, there's often no sidestepping, like Army Reservist Brad Heun, maimed in Iraq in 2003, vertebrae crushed in a truck accident. Heun has fused discs, a steel bar in his back, and constant, excruciating pain in hip and leg.

FORMER SGT. BRAD HEUN, U.S. Army: Literally, it feels like somebody just took a baseball bat and blindsided you across your back.

PAUL SOLMAN: How bad has it been at its worst?

SGT. BRAD HEUN: At its worst, I have been on an emergency room gurney, curled up, and not even be able to concentrate on simple questions.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Veterans Administration has declared Heun 100 percent disabled.

SGT. BRAD HEUN: Basically, I'm going to get worse. It's a matter of time.

PAUL SOLMAN: You're going to get worse?

SGT. BRAD HEUN: Yes, sir. They told me, if I ain't careful, I might end up in a wheelchair.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Army, however, discharged him with only a 20 percent disability. Anything under 30 percent means no benefits.

Wait a second. You don't have health insurance from the Army?

SGT. BRAD HEUN: No, sir.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, Heun gets his own medical care from the VA, plus $2,500 a month to support his family of five, but no health insurance at all for them.

SGT. BRAD HEUN: So I'm trying to pay for a COBRA policy to try to keep my kids with insurance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, that must be what, $800 a month?

SGT. BRAD HEUN: We couldn't afford that, sir. We got -- our policy is $400 a month, and it's got extremely high deductibles.

BEVERLY HEUN, Wife of Injured Veteran: At $1,500.

SGT. BRAD HEUN: Per person.

BEVERLY HEUN: Per person.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Beverly Heun has had back surgery of her own, from a car accident. And their 2-year-old daughter needs surgery, but they've had to put it off.

BEVERLY HEUN: We don't want to do it at the expense of her not having a home to live in. I think it's a disgrace to this country for me to even be sitting her trying to tell you this.

PAUL SOLMAN: Heun is appealing, but...

SGT. BRAD HEUN: Well, that's another lawyer's fee. And so that's just -- you know, why is a soldier having to pay for all these lawyers to do these appeals?

Rationale for enlisting

Tech. Sgt. Jeff Griffith
134th Air National Guard
I could have very easily been a construction worker or working in a factory, but I think I'm better off doing what I'm doing now, making a lot more than the median wage of the county that I live in, so I feel fortunate.

PAUL SOLMAN: Soldiers who typically don't have enough money to pay a lawyer. In fact, in addition to their patriotism, it's their economic status that may have encouraged many to become soldiers in the first place. Air National Guard recruiter Bart Welch.

MASTER SGT. BART WELCH, Air National Guard Recruiter: They're getting $15,000 cash enlistment bonus a lot of times. They're getting a G.I. bill, which is about $300 a month. They're getting a G.I. bill kicker, which is another $350 a month. And then they're getting their pay. Plus, they're getting state tuition assistance. So a lot of them are getting paid for going to college, so they do a lot better after they enlist with us.

PAUL SOLMAN: The recruits, at least the ones provided to us, bore Bart Welch out.

STAFF SGT. LEIGH CURRY, Medic, Air National Guard: None of my friends really pursued school. Several of them are single mothers. Definitely, the military's been the best choice that I've made.

TECH. SGT. JEFF GRIFFITH, 134th Air National Guard Security Forces Squadron: Based on my peers from high school, I could have very easily been a construction worker or working in a factory, but I think I'm better off doing what I'm doing now, making a lot more than the median wage of the county that I live in, so I feel fortunate.

PAUL SOLMAN: Admittedly, recruiting here is easier than most places. For nearly 200 years, Tennessee has been known as the Volunteer State.

LT. CMDR. DAVID PAYNE, U.S. Naval Reserves: It has a heritage since the War of 1812 of being the first to the fight and to continuously volunteer.

PAUL SOLMAN: The University of Tennessee's Lady Vols, for "Volunteers," won the NCAA championship. Knoxville's 865 telephone area code spells "V-O-L." But if tradition doesn't hurt recruiting, neither does the money.

How many people are better off financially for being here?

These are naval reservists in Knoxville.

That's about two-thirds.

David Payne, retiring that very day, was the commander here. His pension?

LT. CMDR. DAVID PAYNE: It's about $45,000 a year, and it has a cost-of-living increase. I'll get, you know, free medical coverage and VA benefits. And it'll go up about, for me, about $1,200 a year after that.

Soldiers facing 'enormous' risks

Robert Hormats
Investment Banker
In all wars, you get people who go in, in part because it's economically beneficial, but still Americans have provided them with sufficient financial support.

PAUL SOLMAN: But what if they get hurt?

NAVY RECRUIT: If I get deployed, I do not have fear, because, if I die, my wife will be taken care of. If I lose a leg, I will receive benefits, as opposed to, if I lose my leg on the highway, I will not.

TECH. SGT. JEFF GRIFFITH: I've got faith that I'm going to be taken care of. We've got some of the best medical care in the world in this country. I'm not going to be left out in the cold.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you feel the Army is taking care of you?

SGT. BRAD HEUN: No, sir.

BEVERLY HEUN: I don't think that they care about the soldier. They definitely don't care about the soldier's family.

SGT. BRAD HEUN: I did what I believed is right, and I would do it again. But, you know, are they really taking care of you?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: These people have signed up and they -- if they don't lose their lives, if they don't lose their limbs, they will be better off than they would have been otherwise. But the cost of this is enormous; the risks that they're being asked to face is enormous.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the lack of support the rest of us are providing, says Robert Hormats, is unprecedented in American history.

ROBERT HORMATS: In all wars, you get people who go in, in part because it's economically beneficial, but still Americans have provided them with sufficient financial support. During World War I, the treasury secretary, McAdoo, said, "You can be sure that, when Americans send their sons abroad" -- only men at that point -- "they're willing, in fact, they're eager to provide money to support their sons who are fighting," in that case in Western Europe.

There's still a requirement that government should ask other people who are not making that sacrifice, who are not in the trenches of France, as they were in those days, or fighting in the deserts of Iraq, to make some sort of commitment to the war, also.

PAUL SOLMAN: It's a commitment and sacrifice, say Hormats and others, that most Americans have not yet been asked to make.