Wounded by inaction

March 26, 2006

On Jan. 4, 2005, 1st Lt. Eivind O. Forseth was leading his Ranger platoon through Mosul when his Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb. Shrapnel tore through his right arm and face. He survived, but his hand was paralyzed, his elbow frozen. The 32-year-old Rockville resident now faces any number of uncertainties. At least two that should be relatively easy to address are proving maddeningly difficult: He needs a car he can drive and a computer he can operate.

Legislation pending in Annapolis would not only help Lieutenant Forseth's cause, but could also offer much-needed assistance to many of Maryland's service-disabled veterans. But the bill is having surprising difficulty getting the traction it deserves. If it fails, election-year politics will be chiefly to blame.

The bill, as envisioned by Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County, would provide no-interest loans to military veterans with service-related disabilities so they might buy adaptive equipment. The military affords this kind of help to some degree, but not enough, the bill's supporters say. In the case of Lieutenant Forseth, the Army won't help him pay for the specially outfitted car that he can drive with one hand or a voice-activated computer he can use in civilian life.

While the House passed the bill unanimously, it did so without support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. James A. Adkins, a deputy secretary for the department, says the governor would prefer the focus be placed on his proposal to make all military pensions exempt from state income tax.

Mr. Ehrlich's priorities are misplaced. Cutting taxes for retired military personnel (who earn more, on average, than the typical Maryland retiree) should not be given any greater importance than assisting disabled war veterans such as Lieutenant Forseth with the transition to civilian life. The fact that Delegate Brown is now a candidate for lieutenant governor no doubt contributed to the governor's tepid view. But Mr. Brown, a veteran of the war in Iraq and a supporter of the tax cut, shouldn't be the issue. Wounded soldiers such as Lieutenant Forseth should be.

The opportunity to hand out millions of dollars in benefits to thousands of retirees - potential voters all - may stir the hearts of politicians, but it shouldn't be to the exclusion of all else. Yet that's the kind of foggy thinking that descends on Annapolis when an election approaches.

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