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Wondering About The Cost Of War? We Have Answers

Sgt. Ben Roberts (center), recently returned from Afghanistan, speaks with Chick-fil-A manager Michael Sims at a military job fair in Columbia, S.C., in January.
John Moore
Getty Images
Sgt. Ben Roberts (center), recently returned from Afghanistan, speaks with Chick-fil-A manager Michael Sims at a military job fair in Columbia, S.C., in January.

As we approach the presidential election in November,Weekend Editionis seeking your questions about issues and candidates in a segment called Reporter Hotline. This week,our focus is veterans affairs and defense spending.

Paying For War

Question from Sue Hoben of Canton, Conn.:"Why don't we increase taxes when we wage a war? For instance, Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely if national interest is at stake, then we should be willing to pay the price rather than add to the deficit."

Answer from NPR's Larry Abramson:"Really good question. A lot of people have asked that and advocated for extra taxes, as we have done in conflicts going all the way back to the War of 1812, also in the Civil War and the war in Vietnam — there were tax increases to pay for those conflicts. But we haven't been doing that in the last few conflicts. ... In Afghanistan, President Bush actually lowered taxes, and President Obama continued that tradition ... he said, in order to give people more money to fight the recession.

"I think the general response has been that it would be a bad idea to raise taxes because of the economic difficulties that we've been experiencing all the way back to when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. But a lot of people still support this idea. However, Congress has decided not to do that."

Question from listener Eric Fajardo: How does Gov. Mitt Romney plan to balance the budget if he increases military spending?

Answer from Abramson:"Gov. Romney actually has not given us specifics on how we would raise money to finance the military spending he envisions. There's some disagreement about exactly how much that extra military spending would cost — anywhere from $1 trillion to $2 trillion beyond what the Obama administration would ask for defense. But Gov. Romney says his plans would [usher] in a strong economy that would help pay for the military spending, and that military spending is the most important obligation for governments, so we should be funding the military first and, if necessary, cut other spending instead."

Benefits For Disabled Veterans

Question from Kathleen Livsey of Stillwater, Okla.: "As the wife of a disabled soldier, I'm concerned about cuts made to the defense budget. My husband is medically retired at 27, and he is supposed to receive full benefits some time in the next 100 days. ... What will defense cuts mean in terms of disabled soldiers?"

Answer from NPR's Quil Lawrence: "In terms of the defense cuts, if you're talking about the sequestration threat, then the Obama administration has said that they're exempting the VA from those cuts. So if you're his caregiver, those benefits you're getting shouldn't change. President Obama has increased the VA's budget about 40 percent in the past three years to about $140.3 billion — that's the request before Congress right now.

"In terms of fixing the VA's problems more generally, both candidates favor a computerized data system. It's hard to believe maybe, but the VA and the Pentagon are only now getting around to using a common electronic record for each soldier, and it's going to take probably until 2017 to fully implement that system. And in the meantime, vets are still complaining that it takes months or sometimes years to get their needs addressed if they appeal a VA decision."

Out Of War, Out Of Work

Question from 29-year-old veteran John-Ryan Dobbs: "Most of the time, I feel that my military experience is a negative thing and sways employers away from hiring me. ... I'm just curious what either [candidate] will do to help veterans actually get jobs."

Answer from Lawrence: "Both candidates have pushed the idea of getting military credentials translated to civilian credentials. So if you drove a truck in Iraq or Afghanistan, you should be able to convert that easily into a commercial truck driver's license back here."

"There are some studies — and I've heard lots of anecdotes — that suggest some employers feel there's some sort of stigma for Iraq and Afghanistan vets, that they're afraid that those soldiers might have PTSD and so they're reluctant to hire them. And, in fact, the numbers that came out in September say that for post-9/11 soldiers ... their unemployment rate is about 2 percentage points worse than nonveterans.

"The Romney campaign says that they'll keep more veterans employed by maintaining a bigger military, basically keeping them in the service. And the Obama administration has pushed jobs bills while in office and they have been blaming Republicans in Congress for not passing the last veterans jobs bill, which was killed by a procedural move. Of course, both parties are blaming the other party for playing politics with that bill."

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