American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger paid visits to four of America's lawmakers on March 26, reminding them of the Legion's legislative priorities for veterans and national defense.
The commander met with Reps. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., and Joe Wilson, R-S.C., in their offices, and met with two others just off the House and Senate floors while a vote was in progress: Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Dellinger discussed the Legion's top legislative goals with the lawmakers, which include protecting national defense from more budget cuts, opposing any increases in TRICARE fees, ensuring stability of funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, getting more veterans jobs in the private sector, reducing the VA claims backlog and protecting the U.S. Flag from physical desecration.
McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, lamented to Dellinger that, because of the defense budget cuts, "All the (Armed) Forces have to dig themselves out of a hole." If sequestration continues, McKeon said the Army will have to draw down its force levels to 420,000 men, and the Marine Corps will be down to about 21 combat brigades. And "if we have to go into North Korea it will take 20 combat brigades."
Dellinger mentioned that he recently visited South Korea and was amazed at how close the capital of Seoul was to the Demilitarized Zone. McKeon replied that if North Korea invaded again, "the amount of warning time will be none" and the number of casualties on that first day could be severe.
America needs to get back to understanding the principles of national defense espoused by presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, McKeon said: Peace through strength, and maintaining a military that is so strong, no one would dare attack. "The American Legion needs to spread the word.... The world is not at peace, and it's not getting better - it's getting worse. And when you cut defense budgets, that's when you get into wars."
Wilson told Dellinger he had just returned from visiting U.S. allies in Asia and "they are very concerned" about China extending its territorial claims. He said that "it doesn't take much to have a Sarajevo-like event" that might plunge the region into war. "It's too gruesome to think of the consequences." The June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo became the flashpoint that ignited the First World War.
Mentioning his recent meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Dellinger said, "The secretary kept saying that America has tough budget choices to make. And I said we can't take the military down that road." He told Wilson, "You have our backing in protecting defense from the effects of sequestration."
According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), the country will be spending more on its debt interest than on national defense by the end of this decade. The Department of Defense is already planning to reduce its forces by more than 100,000 servicemembers, CSBA says, and twice as many might be cut if military pay and benefits are not reduced.
Smith, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, talked about troop reductions with Dellinger, as well as sequestration, spending caps and base closures. While he assured the Commander that he did not support troop reductions per se, Smith said he was a realist and if cuts couldn't be found elsewhere in the defense budget - and no way is found to increase revenue - then troop strength might have to be cut.
Dellinger pointed out that DoD had many other methods at its disposal to save money; for example, great sums of money have been wasted on procuring equipment that eventually gets canceled. "We are sending tanks to field commanders who don't want them, and purchasing aircraft that are deemed too expensive to operate and sent directly to the 'boneyard.'"
Smith agreed that the military procurement process needs to be overhauled. "No," Dellinger said. "The (House) Armed Services Committee needs to do a better job of oversight." Again, Smith agreed.
A great deal of U.S. military equipment has been left in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to CSBA. In fact, about $40 billion worth of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles in Afghanistan are being shredded and sold for scrap.
The commander's final meeting of the day took place with Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who expressed serious concerns about how America's national security could remain sustainable with the kind of tradeoffs in force structure Hagel was recommending.
Addressing possible tradeoffs in the defense budget, CSBA said that $1 billion could buy one of the following: one year of pay and benefits for 10,000 troops (minus TRICARE), two Littoral Combat Ships, nine F-35 warplanes (with engines), one-year operational costs for 200 A-10 aircraft, or two-thirds of the commissary subsidy for one year.
The following Legionnaires accompanied Dellinger on Capitol Hill: his aide, Robert Renner; Legislative Director Louis Celli, National Security Commission Chairman Mike Schlee, National Legislative Council Vice Chairman Eric Measles, Legislative Assistant Director Jeff Steele, and American Legion Small Business Task Force member Charles Fowler.