Fewer, older, sicker veterans strain VA resources

November 11, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

MODESTO, Calif. -- The changing face of the military is sending the veteran population into a steady decline while turning it gray with age.

Veterans and the organizations they turn to for support say a shrinking military population and the continuing national budget crisis mean they can no longer take for granted the comprehensive menu of GI Bill benefits that became part of the social landscape 50 years ago: housing loan guarantees, medical care, pensions, educational assistance, disability payments, employment preference.

The decline in numbers comes just as millions of World War II veterans, the largest contingent of all, reach the age of greatest medical need.

Data from the Census and the federal Department of Veteran Affairs paint the picture. Mostly because of the deaths of World War II vets, the population peaked at 28.6 million in 1980, then fell to 26.8 million in 1992.

The increase in veterans 65-plus years old was still more abrupt --their number more than doubled to 7.2 million during the 1980s. VA figures suggest the population will continue to age and shrink.

While just 30 percent of American men are veterans, a full 75 percent of those aged 65 to 69 years served in the military. The VA projects the over-65 group will continue to grow until it peaks six years from now at 9 million, more than a third of all veterans. Meanwhile, the lower rate of military service by younger men means the overall roster will continue to shrink.

The VA acknowledges the strain an aging population will put on the medical system. To date, taxpayers seem willing to pay the bill.

The second-largest contingent of veterans, those from the Vietnam War, will put new demands on the system as retirement age approaches.

As the population falls, the job will get no easier, predicted Rhett Daverio, state quartermaster for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"And of course we hope someday to see no war veterans whatsoever," he added.

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