Illustration by Louise Leong.

We owe a great deal to the men and women who make up the U.S. Armed forces. In a complete 180-degree turn from the public stance adopted during the Vietnam War, the rhetoric is now “Support our Troops.” It’s a shared recognition — whether or not one agrees with the presence the United States continues to have in Middle East — a kind of “love the warrior, not the war” ideology.

But that’s the easy part.

Financing our support requires walking down a much rockier road. It’s clear for many the current rate of defense spending is absolutely unsustainable, especially with the U.S. economy in as much trouble as it is. National defense makes up about 19 percent of the entire federal budget for the 2012 fiscal year, just behind social security (20 percent) and healthcare (22.6 percent).

In real terms, 19 percent year after year is an enormous amount. In 2006, U.S. military spending exceeded that of China, Russia, Britain and the next 12 countries combined. The 19 percent has bought the missiles, unmanned drones, ships and private contractors that “accomplished” our mission in Iraq in 2003, then officially “ended” it eight years later.

More importantly, however, the 19 percent also provides veterans their benefits and premiums in the form of Tricare — accessible only to those service members with 20 years of service or more — and other healthcare benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The Pentagon has recently been ordered to trim its budget over the next 10 years by $450 billion. Should the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (more colloquially referred to as the “Supercommittee”) fail to agree on a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion by Nov. 23, defense spending will take another hit of roughly $500 billion.

While the majority of what’s being considered for the Pentagon’s chopping block is its vast array of defense contracts, the benefits and support afforded to its uniformed personnel are also under consideration.

As proposed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, additional fees to Tricare may have to be implemented and military retirement pay may ultimately be renegotiated.

This is unacceptable.

While the costs of providing healthcare to veterans has jumped from $19 billion (inflation-adjusted to $25 billion) to $53 billion over the last 10 years, these pale in comparison to the Pentagon’s defense contracts and misappropriated funds. If, for example, the Pentagon chose to cancel purchasing 2,400 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, nearly $400 billion alone would be saved.

And what of the veterans who have yet to claim their benefits? There are hundreds of thousands of combat veterans on the VA’s backlog waiting to qualify for Tricare. Over 500,000 veterans — some with missing limbs and others with post-traumatic stress disorder — continue to rely on aid and assistance provided by VA medical facilities. A study from Brown University projects the cost of care won’t even peak for another 30 to 40 years.

With Obama looking to end our military involvement in Iraq and reel in the number of active servicemen, the federal government needs to carefully consider how we will reappropriate military spending.