Veterans Group Backs Lawsuits to Stop Trump Transfer of Military Funding to Border Wall

October 24, 2019 by Dan McCue
Bulldozer preparing the ground for border infrastructure replacement near Border Field State Park, San Diego May 31, 2018 (US Border Patrol)

WASHINGTON – A group representing veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has thrown its support behind a pair of lawsuits aimed at halting President Donald Trump’s use of military funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S. Mexico border.

The state of California, the Sierra Club and a group called the Southern Border Communities Coalition sued the Trump administration earlier this year, arguing the president’s use of emergency power to reallocate $3.6 billion in military construction funding is “unprecedented, unconstitutional, and unauthorized” under the statute he invoked.

In filing amicus briefs in the two lawsuits on Tuesday, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America emphasized that its membership is diverse, representing the “full spectrum of political persuasions,” and that it wasn’t opining on the merits of the national policy to build the border wall or the lawfulness of the president’s actions.

Instead the group, which has about 425,000 members, said it wanted to comment on the case “to provide its unique perspective on the impact of the President’s decision to divert funding from much-needed military construction projects.”

“This diversion of funds to build a border wall exacerbates a longstanding military construction budget crunch, with profound consequences for military service members and families,” said the brief filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“It endangers the wellbeing of currently serving military members and their families and diminishes their quality of life. For that reason, IAVA opposes the diversion of military construction funding to the border wall,” the filing said.

“IAVA is speaking out on behalf of service members and their families,” CEO Jeremy Butler said in a statement. “Regardless whether you support or oppose the border wall, it should not come at the expense of our service members and their families.”

The 10-page filing noted that the process of securing funding for military construction projects is long and complicated, involving many layers of bureaucracy.

“Even for the highest-priority projects, it can take ‘three or more years’ before an identified need makes it into a budget request, and years longer for ‘congressional authorization and appropriations, implementation of the federal contracting process, and the physical construction of the project,’” the brief said.

“The perpetual problem of underfunded military construction has been exacerbated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which passed to avert a government shutdown and has been amended in response to subsequent budget impasses,” it continued.

“Military construction funding is being depleted year after year to meet those spending caps. As a result, the living and working conditions of service members and their families have already ‘been neglected in favor of other priorities,’ and ‘many construction projects are long overdue,’” it said.

IAVA argues that each of the projects losing funding for the sake of the border wall “would improve safety, quality of life, or work environment for military service members and their families—improvements that will not be made if the Administration’s diversion of funds is permitted to proceed.”

“The disastrous consequences of deferring military construction in favor of the border wall do not end there,” the group cautioned. “The planned funding diversions would also harm the health and welfare of service members’ families.

“Service members and their families, already asked to sacrifice for the good of their country on a daily basis, would be forced to continue doing so with substandard healthcare. And their children, who often share those sacrifices as they follow their parents to military bases both here and abroad, would not get the help they need to ensure the schools they attend are safe and effective.”

Although the brief doesn’t reference it, these cases are playing themselves out against a backdrop of heightened concern over the wellbeing and mental health of America’s soldiers.

A report released by the Pentagon in September found the rate of suicide among troops has increased to the highest level in five years.

The rate of suicide among active duty troops was 24.8 per 100,000 people in 2018. In 2017, that figure was 21.9 per 100,000 troops. Five years ago, the suicide rate among troops was 18.5 per 100,000 service members.

The Pentagon attributed the overall spike in the rate to small increases in suicides across all the services. The military’s suicide rate compares with 18.2 people per 100,000 for all Americans aged 17 to 59.

The report maintains that, adjusting for age and gender, the military’s rate is roughly the same as American society.

The Pentagon, in August, released a more limited report that listed the total number of suicides for 2018. The 325 suicide deaths recorded for the year represented an increase of 40 compared with 2017. The increase was driven by a 25% increase in the Army and a 15% increase in the Marine Corps.  However, that report did not estimate the rate of suicide by service nor did it include demographic data.

Among active-duty troops, the Marine Corps had the highest rate with 31.4 suicides per 100,000 Marines. The Army had 24.8 suicides per 100,000 soldiers; the Navy had 20.7 suicides per 100,000 sailors and the Air Force had 18.5 suicides per 100,000 airmen. The suicide rate for the Army National Guard was 30.6 suicides per 100,000 guardsmen.

Commenting on the suicides during a news conference last month in Norfolk, Va., Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent further, future suicides in the armed services: We don’t.”

“It’s something we continue to wrestle with,” he said. “I believe we have the means and the resources to get ahead of this and do better than our civilian counterparts.”

Lindsay Rodman, IAVA’s executive vice president for communications and legal strategy said, “We should be taking care of our troops and honoring their sacrifices.  The diversion of military construction funding is one way that we are failing to take care of military service members and their families.”

The Marine Corps and Operation Enduring Freedom veteran added: “The suicide numbers are one devastating result of the fact that we are not doing an adequate job.  I do not want to make an unreasonable link, but they are both indications that we are not doing right by the folks who are sacrificing for us.”

The lawsuits are just two of several attempts to block Trump’s use of the construction funds for his wall.

Earlier this month,  after successfully passing a resolution that would have ended the emergency declaration, Senate Democrats tried but failed to override the president’s veto of the measure.

The House similarly tried to override the president’s initial veto last spring, but was also unsuccessful.

IAVA said the court’s decision in the two cases “will have an outsized impact on the lives of military service members and their families.”

“Those men and women, who swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States dutifully execute all lawful orders, even when they are asked to put themselves in harm’s way,” the brief said.  “But they should not needlessly be placed in harm’s way, nor should their quality of life be unnecessarily impacted, through the deferral of already-stretched military construction budgets in favor of an unrelated political policy. For these reasons, IAVA respectfully asks this Court to take heed of the impacts on military service members and their families as it considers plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.”

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