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Kerry and Lieberman criticize Bush on veterans benefits

WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman launched Veterans Day attacks on President Bush for his treatment of former service members and outlined their plans for improving benefits.

"On this Veterans Day, particularly with 135,000 soldiers on duty in Iraq and others in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere . . . we should commit ourselves to take good care of them the other 364 days of the year," Lieberman said yesterday while campaigning in New Hampshire.

"We must do our part to care for those who have borne the burdens of battle," Kerry said in material prepared for a round of appearances today in Iowa. "This is about keeping America's promise."

A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, the Massachusetts senator contends that the Bush administration has come up sadly lacking in its treatment for veterans.

Kerry put no price tag on his proposal but said that 90,000 veterans are awaiting care from Veterans Administration medical centers and that fees and copayments veterans must pay are increasing.

He called for mandatory funding of health care programs to assure treatment for all eligible veterans at VA medical centers.

He also said that under existing plans, as many 500,000 veterans would be excluded from the government health care system by 2005.

Kerry's package would also provide mortgage insurance for National Guard and Reserve members.

That assures that members who see their pay cut when they are called to active duty would not lose their homes.

Lieberman said Bush promised during the 2000 campaign that "help was on the way" for the military, and instead cut combat pay, compromised health care, and threatened to eliminate public schools for domestic military families.

In addition, the Connecticut senator said Bush fought efforts to give veterans adequate health care and protect their retirement pay when they are disabled.

Lieberman, who is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, outlined a 12-part proposal.

He proposed "a decent wage" along with special compensation for housing, health care, and other services so that veterans can provide for their families. He also promised not to cut military pay if he were president.

Lieberman said he would ensure that reservists, National Guard members, and their families receive adequate care and would upgrade VA medical centers to help veterans.

He said Bush proposed cutting school funding by 30 percent for children of parents serving on active duty, and tried to close or transfer control of 58 schools the government operates on 14 military bases in the country.

Lieberman said he would provide quality education for military children at home and overseas by protecting funding and keeping military schools open.

In defending his record, Bush said in a campaign release that his 2004 budget contains the largest increase for the Department of Veterans Affairs ever requested. He also said he increased the budget for the agency more in his first two years in office than in the previous six years.

He said he has increased the agency's budget by one-third and that his proposed 2004 budget contains the largest medical increase ever for veterans' health care.

Bush said he also took the unprecedented step of allowing veterans with a prescription from private physicians to have the VA fill them.

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