Nearly 200 sick and wounded soldiers in a gym at Fort Carson last month listened silently as Lt. Col. Daniel Gade offered a surprising warning: The disability checks designed to help troops like them after they leave the service might actually be harmful.
As he paced back and forth in front of the soldiers, some of them leaning on crutches, Colonel Gade said that too many veterans become financially dependent on those monthly checks, choose not to find jobs and lose the sense of identity and self-worth that can come from work.
“People who stay home because they are getting paid enough to get by on disability are worse off,” he said. “They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to live alone. You’ve seen these guys. And the system is driving you to become one of them, if you are not careful.”
It was a message that many veterans find offensive and misguided. But Colonel Gade is not your typical messenger. He is a combat veteran who lost a leg while serving as a tank company commander in Iraq in 2005.
Today he is a professor of public policy at the United States Military Academy at West Point, but he spends much of his spare time publishing essays and traveling the country pushing the idea that the Department of Veterans Affairs should move away from paying veterans for their wounds and instead create incentives for them to find work or create businesses.
“It’s a difficult issue to broach. People immediately think you are trying to shortchange veterans,” he said in an interview. “But I’m in a position to do it because I have skin in the game, literally.”
Much like debate over Social Security, discussion of disability compensation is the third rail of veterans politics. It is a program with broad public support that has defied efforts at change even as it has consumed a growing portion of the $151 billion Veterans Affairs budget.