Improved benefits outweighed by price

Good news for our soldiers wounded in Iraq. They're not going to have to pay for their own meals anymore during their recovery stays in military hospitals. And good news for the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11. Survivors' death payments are going to be doubled to $12,000. Tax free.

A bill eliminating the $8.10 a day wounded soldiers were paying for their hospital meals and another that increases next of kin death benefits have been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The troops are insulted by it," said Florida Republican Bill Young, referring to the practice of charging for hospital food. Young introduced the bill to end the charge.

"This is long overdue," said New York Democrat Michael R. McNulty of the increased death benefit.

Thanks to Congressional generosity, life and death are looking better for those in combat.

Although the basic pay for a grunt fighting on the ground in Iraq ranges up to only about $1,800 a month, he also receives combat or "special" pay. And there are additional benefits. Wounded, he gets free hospitalization, and very soon free meals. Killed, he gets a free burial. And, when the measure is finally signed, his heirs will get a little something extra for his sacrifice.

As I researched these stories, I scrolled through the headlines relative to those who will "benefit" by these measures:

"Attacks Claim Lives of 3 U.S. Soldiers in Iraq" (Oct. 28).

"3 American Soldiers Are Killed, 20 Hurt in Iraq" (Oct. 25).

"4 More Soldiers Die in Iraq" (Oct. 18).

"Two U.S. Soldiers Are Killed in Iraq" (Oct. 10).

"3 U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq" (Oct. 8).

"3 American Soldiers Die in Ambush in Iraq" (Sept. 19).

"U.S. Soldier Dies in Iraq Attack" (Sept. 10).

"U.S. Soldier Killed in Iraq; 4 Hurt" (Aug. 30).

The headlines go on. The killing goes on. The wounding goes on. And here at home, recognizing the deeds of those in peril in a distant land, we grant free hospital food to the wounded and another $6,000 to the families of those who mourn.

While acknowledgment of their selflessness is admirable, there's an even better way to honor the men and women ducking mortars shells and dodging bombs over there. That would be finding a way to get them the hell out of there fast, and seeking geopolitical means other than war in the future.

Since President Bush, on May 1, declared an end to "active combat," whatever that means, 132 Americans have been killed by those who apparently haven't realized that active combat has ended. There are always 10%, as Marines used to say, who never get the word. Apparently Iraq's terrorists are among them.

That 117 is more than the 114 killed in action between the start of the war March 20 and the day Bush, clad in a green flight suit, helmet tucked under his left arm, declared from the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln that the war was pretty much over. Without active combat, what other dangers could there possibly be?

So confident was our president that we had stomped 'em into submission, Texas-style, that when the beaten enemy blustered that the worst was yet to come, old Bush shook a fist and challenged, "Bring them on!"

And on they have come.

I write of this today not to belabor political failures, but to observe the ironies implicit in any war. In combat, those who bear the brunt of the fighting were once generally considered as elements of larger units, whose casualties were numbered in multiples. That was true in the Second World War, in the Korean War and in the Vietnam War. Only those who mourned knew the individuals in the masses.

In this so-called war of liberation, where our soldiers die one by one or two by two, there is unavoidable singularity in their dying. We are forced to know their names and their families and the towns and cities they once called home. We are forced to look war in the face and recognize a son.

The importance of those bills to end hospital meal payments and to increase death benefits contributes to the irony of the fighting in Iraq, ironies consistent with the failed search for Saddam Hussein and for those weapons of mass destruction that got America's gullible super-patriots all worked up in the first place.

And now that we have spent billions bombing Iraq, Bush seeks more billions to restore it. That might well be the ultimate metaphor of war's tragic stupidity. The killing and wounding of our soldiers will continue, and so will the wounding and killing of the enemies who move like shadows throughout Iraq.

But, hey, look on the bright side. The wounded will get free hospital food, and the families of those killed will have a little more money jingling in their pockets.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction Al Martinez -- In Monday's column, a reference to the number of troops killed in Iraq since May 1 was updated over the weekend from 117 to 132 in one paragraph but not in the following paragraph. The second reference should have read: "That 132 is more than the 114 killed in action between the start of the war March 20 and the day Bush, clad in a green flight suit, helmet tucked under his left arm, declared from the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln that the war was pretty much over."
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