LANSING, Mich. – The wail of bagpipes at Memorial Day events honoring servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan rang hollow for some military veterans this year.
In Michigan and elsewhere, once-sacrosanct veterans' programs are no longer safe from the knife as tax revenues continue sliding in the recession.
In a recent budget-cutting order, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislators slashed $1 million, or 25 percent, of funding for 11 groups that help veterans through a maze of paperwork and bureaucracy to get disability and pension benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The cut is forcing layoffs and likely will be carried over to the next budget, too.
"It's a travesty," said Daniel Crocker, Michigan service director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which had to eliminate four jobs. "The greatness of a nation will be judged by how it treats its veterans."
South Carolina plans to cut aid to the VFW, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans in the next budget. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently outlined a "doomsday" budget that would close all four of the state's veterans' homes if an income tax increase is not passed, leaving more than 1,000 veterans without care.
Thirteen veterans' groups in Ohio got 10 percent less than promised this year after state cuts.
Funding for veterans' service organizations, or VSOs, is a fraction of multibillion-dollar state budgets that support schools, prisons and health care for the poor. But a $27,000 reduction means the South Carolina VFW will not be able to pay its lone service officer when she returns from medical leave.
The public is most familiar with veterans' groups for their baseball tournaments, bingo nights and participation in parades. But veterans and widows of veterans rely on service organizations for help with benefits, especially in states that give money to the groups instead of hiring their own employees to help file claims.
Vietnam veteran Dennis Wayne, 62, of suburban Detroit, became so upset about Michigan's cuts that he protested last week at the state Capitol.
Wayne, who wore dog tags to the rally, says he was turned down after requesting service-connected disability benefits by himself. He sought help from the Livonia chapter of Disabled American Veterans, and benefits ultimately were approved.
"It's very difficult. There's a lot of red tape," said Wayne, who served in the Marines.
Veterans say the cuts could not come at a worse time.
President Barack Obama is moving to remove combat troops from Iraq in 2010, and they will return with physical and psychological problems. Fort Jackson already has an outfit full of injured soldiers recuperating from combat, training injuries or other illnesses, says Albert Landsperger, senior vice commander/adjutant for the South Carolina VFW.
"They're all going to need assistance putting in claims with the VA," he said. "We're going to need more service officers than we've got now."
Sean Wood, 23, served in Iraq last year with the Michigan National Guard's 126th Calvary Squadron. The Lowell resident hopes to go to Afghanistan in the future.
"Why would you take away from the guys who are willing to put their life on the line?" he said. "The veterans deserve to get their wounds healed."
And it's not just younger soldiers who need help. Older veterans are being laid off and losing their health insurance coverage, forcing them to seek assistance from the VA for the first time.
Granholm spokeswoman Megan Brown says Michigan's Department of Military & Veterans Affairs overall is not experiencing any harsher cuts than other state departments. She says the state is preserving "essential" services for veterans.
"We understand how painful this is. These are very, very painful economic times, and we've had to make some very painful decisions on the budget," Brown said.