House Committee on Veterans' Affairs chairman Bob Filner warns against a repeat of the way Vietnam veterans were treated during his address to the Legion's national convention.. Photo by James V. Carroll

Filner: Don't repeat Vietnam mistakes

U.S Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., was against the Vietnam War. But whether someone is against a war or not, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs told The American Legion's 92nd Annual National Convention that one point should never be up for debate.

"What is not up for debate is the care of our younger people, or older people, when they come back from that war," Filner told Legion delegates gathered in Milwaukee. "They need to get all the care, the love, the attention, the honor that a nation can give. Even if we didn't know that in our heads, we should have seen what happened in Vietnam. That war was divisive. I opposed that war. But we should have differentiated between the warrior and the war. We should have welcomed them home as heroes.

"We're paying a horrible price as a nation. Individuals and families paid the price. You know that half the homeless around the United States are Vietnam veterans. That's 200,000. That's a national disgrace that we allowed that to happen. There have been more suicides by Vietnam vets than died in the original war. That's over 58,000. That is a terrible stain on America in that we allowed that to happen. You can't prevent every person from doing things to themselves that you would not want them to do, but you can certainly take care of the vast range of mental health concerns, of physical health concerns, that may have led to that suicide. But we didn't do it."

Filner has legislation in Congress that will expand Agent Orange benefits to a wider range of Vietnam veterans, including those who did not serve on the ground there but were exposed to the toxic defoliant onboard ships. "My motto is, ‘If you were there, we should care,'" he said. "I don't care if your boots were on ground, or if you were in the blue waters off the shore, if you were in the blue skies above. If you were in Laos or Thailand. If you were in Guam. If you were in Camp Lejeune and other American bases that handled these shipments. You should be eligible."

The chairman noted that the VA health-care budget has increased by 60 percent in the past four years, adding that the money needs to continue to go to the right places.

"I think you all know we have a great VA, but I think you all know we have a long way to go," he said. "We have too many that still think that VA means ‘veterans adversary' - a lot of those that have Agent Orange claims, for example. And our job is to make sure we are veterans advocates. That's the VA that everybody knows and respects.

"I think we've come a long way. We've done some good things in the last few years. In the four years that I've been chairman, we have raised the VA health-care budget by $23 billion. Unprecedented in the history of the VA, and unprecedented for any other budget at this time of deficits in the nation. VA now has resources to be responsive to everybody. My job as chairman ... is to be the watchdog. To make sure they spend that money wisely, fairly, efficiently, but with responsiveness. That they spend it on veterans' needs."