Veterans funding the focus of showdown over budget talks, debt ceiling default : NPR

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Veteran Jesse Reynolds says he’s relying on his monthly VA disability check until he can readjust to civilian life.

Jesse Reynolds/courtesy of Jesse Reynolds

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Jesse Reynolds/courtesy of Jesse Reynolds

Veteran Jesse Reynolds says he’s relying on his monthly VA disability check until he can readjust to civilian life.

Jesse Reynolds/courtesy of Jesse Reynolds

For Navy veteran Jesse Reynolds, it’s personal.

Veterans funding is currently a key part of two high-stakes showdowns in Washington: budget talks and a possible default on America’s debt. If the United States fails, as soon as June 1, the Department of Veterans Affairs could be short of cash. And this means that Jesse Reynolds can be broken on the first of the month.

“Money is pretty tight these days,” he said by phone, driving from Utah to Arizona with his two dogs in the truck he calls home.

“This past year and a half has just been trying to find myself again, trying to keep myself alive, and come back to the world,” he said.

Reynolds served 14 years in the Navy, until a head injury cut short his time with a SEAL team. He was taking online classes and living in a pop-up camper on the back of his pickup truck. His only income is the monthly disability check from the VA.

“I didn’t have money coming in. I’m thinking of selling everything and I hope to have enough to feed the dogs. Maybe I’ll get two bags of dog food – one for them, one for me,” he said. with a dark laugh.

Patrick Murray, legislative director for the VFW says it’s uncharted territory for veterans.

“A lot of people have been asking, ‘What does this mean for me? What does this mean for my benefits?’ And our first response is, ‘We don’t really know because this has never happened before,’” he said.

The government has not failed before

The American government has never failed. But if Congress does not raise the debt limit, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the money could run out as soon as June 1.

If he does, that could mean late checks — and troops and veterans missing rent or mortgages or car payments. And it can affect the people who serve those veterans, Murray said.

“It could affect the pay of federal workers who process VA claims, or VA doctors and nurses,” he added.

Murray says he hopes so the debt limit is not being used as a bargaining chip in the other showdown, where Republicans are trying to cut the budget.

The Chairman of Veterans Affairs of the Republican House, Mike Bost, has said many times that he will not allow veterans’ funds to be cut. Bost is a veteran himself and said the Democrats and the White House are scaring vets for political gain.

“With no regard for the impact of their words, they continue to tell lies about how House Republicans are cutting veterans’ benefits, and it’s false,” Bost said recently.

But this week House Republicans released a bill that keeps the level of funding for veterans, but moves about $15 billion from a huge new program to help veterans who suffer from toxic exposures and makes it discretionary funding.

Allison Jaslow with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said that means it can be cut when it comes up for renewal each year.

“Veterans have gotten a lot of lip service. We’ve been told through negotiations that veterans funding is not on the table. The problem is we haven’t gotten those guarantees in writing at this point, Jaslow said.

Which leaves vets like Jesse Reynolds still worried as he drives his truck to his next camping spot for the night.

“We are kind of expendable I guess. It is terrifying to know that I can struggle more than I already really quickly,” he said.

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