Among the most transcendent stories of any society are those of soldiers who risk themselves to save comrades stranded on the battlefield. It was no surprise, then, that for a few weeks in late March and early April, much of America was transfixed by the saga of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch, a simple country girl from Virginia who was captured by Iraqi soldiers then rescued in a daring midnight commando raid.

Never mind that the raid was later revealed to be a piece of military theater, with our soldiers smashing beds and threatening cripples in an unguarded hospital whose doctors and nurses had befriended Private Lynch after saving her life. It was the image, not the reality that mattered. So it was only appropriate that at the same time President Bush lauded the courage of Jessica Lynch and our troops in Iraq, he was busy gutting the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) health-care budget.

The Bush administration’s original fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget called for $1.5 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, while technically increasing the VA medical budget by 7.7 percent to $27.5 billion. However, this growth was illusory – sustained only by raising veterans’ annual fees and copayments while denying coverage to 360,000 of them – and the House of Representatives FY 2004 budget dispensed altogether with any pretense of civility. The $726 billion tax cut of their original version, passed on March 21, was paid for in part by a 10-year, $15 billion cut in mandatory veterans benefits and health coverage.

These figures included a $463 million funding decrease for the coming year, rationalized as an elimination of waste and abuse, but actually targeting pensions of war-disabled veterans and GI Bill benefits of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Altogether, the House budget cuts represented a loss of about 9,000 VA physicians, or 900,000 days of hospital care – figures that are especially poignant in light of the already sorry state of veterans’ health. About 300,000 veterans are forced to wait six months for their first primary care appointment; in some cases, the waiting list is three years long, and many VA hospitals have closed their enrollments altogether. The demand for care is growing rapidly, as aging veterans are joined by an influx of claimants from the Gulf War and soon Iraq. Meanwhile, a decade of flat and sometimes declining budgets coupled with skyrocketing medical costs have left the entire system on the brink of disaster. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), one of the nation’s most respected veterans groups, estimates that a VA medical budget fully funded at current levels is still $2 billion short of providing adequate care.

Luckily, a Democrat-driven amendment restored VA funding to the House budget, making it a mirror of the Senate’s more friendly version; and while the final congressional budget allows for anywhere from $350 billion to $1.5 trillion in tax breaks, veterans health cuts are off the board altogether – at least for the time being.

The Bush administration’s recent maneuvers were only the latest. Last summer, VA administrators were instructed not to tell veterans about benefits to which they are already entitled, and Bush previously attempted to cut the retirement pay of veterans already receiving disability compensation. This does not bode well for the future. The VA budget is discretionary, meaning it is rewritten every year and must pass through congressional appropriations committees that determine whether the allocated funds are actually distributed. During FY 2003, money for Veterans Affairs was delayed for five months.

There has been relatively little mainstream political fallout from the Bush administration’s treatment of veterans. Yet even if most Americans are too distracted to follow the intricacies of budget politics, veterans associations have been pointed in their anger. Nearly every veterans group officially issued some variation on a theme eloquently articulated by the comments of Ray Sisk, commander-in-chief of the VFW: “It is unconscionable as we stand on the brink of war in the deserts of Iraq that we send a message to our service men and women that our nation will not be there for them in their time of need.” But what did they expect from a president who went AWOL from his own military duties for more than a year during the early ’70s? The technical term for such behavior is, after all, desertion.

Sixteen months from now, in a fundraising move of unprecedented indecency, the Republican National Convention will be held in tandem with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. One hopes that those hundreds of thousands of veterans denied the care their sacrifices have earned will join others victimized by the Bush administration – the millions who have lost unemployment benefits or health insurance, whose children’s schools are closed and food stamps cancelled – and descend on New York City, gathering at the site of the World Trade Center to demand something of which President Bush often speaks and is long overdue: justice.