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Caring for Veterans on the Cheap

How the Veterans' Administration has been shortchanging soldiers who come back wounded.

| Fri Apr. 28, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

On the eve of his Marine unit's assault on Falluja in November, 2004, Blake Miller read to his men from the Bible (John 14:2-3): "In my father's house, there are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I leave this place and go there to prepare a place for you, so that where I may be, you may be also."

A photograph of Miller's blood-smeared, filthy face, so reminiscent of David Douglas Duncan's photos of war-weary Marines in Vietnam, is one of the Iraq War's iconic images. Over a hundred newspapers ran it. But as the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently, Miller, a decorated war hero, has been shattered psychologically by Iraq. Disabled by flashbacks and nightmares, he continues to pay daily and dearly for his service there.

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His eloquent commitment to his fellow Marines is the highest value in military life. But the Bush administration, which sent Blake Miller, his fellow Marines, and 1.3 million other Americans (so far) to war in Iraq and Afghanistan apparently does not share this commitment.

Much has been written about how President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld waged war on the cheap, sending too few ill-equipped young soldiers -- 30% of them ill-trained Reservists and National Guardsmen -- into battle. But little has been reported about how shockingly on-the-cheap the homecomings of these soldiers have proved to be. The Bush administration awarded Blake Miller a medal, but it has fought for three long years to deny soldiers like him the care they need. While Miller and his men were being thrown into the fire in Falluja, the White House was proposing to cut the combat pay of soldiers like them. (Only an outburst of outrage across the political spectrum caused the administration to back off from that suggestion.)

The Veterans Administration, now run by a former Republican National Committeeman, has been subjected to the same radical hatcheting that the White House has tried to wield against the rest of America's safety net. Cutbacks, cooking the books, privatization schemes, even a proposal to close down the VA's operations have all been in evidence. The administration's inside-the-beltway supporters like the Heritage Foundation and famed anti-tax radical Grover Norquist like to equate VA care with welfare. Traditionally, however, most Americans have held that the VA's medical care and disability compensation was earned by those who served their country.

Unfortunately, in our draft-free country, the fight to protect the Veteran's Administration and to fully fund it has gone on largely out of public sight. Other than the Washington Post and the Associated Press, relatively few journalistic organizations have bothered to regularly cover the VA. The fight over it that White House hatchetmen, VA political appointees, and their allies in Congress have had with Congressional critics (Democratic and Republican) along with veterans' organizations has been monitored closely only by veterans' websites like Larry Scott's VAWatchdog.org, veteransforcommonsense.org and military.com.

"Enron-styled Accounting"

While national deficits soar, thanks in part to skyrocketing war costs, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are flooding into the increasingly underfunded VA system. The Pentagon says that 2,389 Americans have died and 17,648 have been wounded in combat in Iraq (and another 285 have died in Afghanistan). But these casualty figures seem to be significant undercounts. After all, 144,424 American veterans have sought treatment from the VA system since returning from those wars, not including soldiers actually hospitalized in military hospitals.

These figures were wrested only recently from the Veteran's Administration after years of fruitless demands from Democrats on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. The 144,424 figure includes not only many of those 17,648 reported wounded in combat by the Pentagon -- if that figure is, in fact, accurate -- but those wounded psychologically, those injured in accidents, and those whose ailments were caused or exacerbated by service in the war. (Think of war, in this sense, as an extreme sport in its toll on the body.) Of course, neither Pentagon, nor VA figures for the wounded include estimates of those soldiers or veterans who don't show up at a Department of Defense (DoD) or VA facility. Among these casualties are post-combat-tour suicides (who obviously can't show up) and the victims of diseases like leishmaniasis, caused by the ubiquitous sand flies in Iraq, who often suffer on their own.

Nonetheless, the VA has admitted -- and it's been confirmed by an Army study -- that a staggering 35% of veterans who served in Iraq have already sought treatment in the VA system for emotional problems from the war. Add this to the older veterans, especially from the Vietnam era, pouring into the VA system as their war wounds, both physical and emotional, deepen with age or as, on retirement, they find they can no longer afford private health insurance and realize that VA health care is -- or, at least in the past, was -- more generous than Medicare.

Just as the Pentagon failed, after its March 2003 invasion of Iraq, to plan for keeping the peace, guarding against looting, fighting a resilient insurgency, or handling a civil war, so has the Veterans Administration failed to plan for caring for casualties of the war. The VA admitted recently that 33,858 more vets showed up for treatment in just the first quarter of FY2006 than were expected for the entire year. Do the math yourself. Multiply times 4, assuming that the war goes on injuring Americans at current levels, and you get a possible underestimate of 135,000 casualties for the year.

Even more distressing, the San Diego Union recently reported that mentally ill soldiers are being sent back to war armed only with antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. The Union quotes Sydney Hickey of the National Military Family Association as saying that "more than 200,000 prescriptions for the most common antidepressants were written in the last 14 months for service members and their families." According to the Union, an Army study also found that 17% of combat-seasoned infantrymen suffer from major depression, anxiety, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a single tour in Iraq. California Sen. Barbara Boxer has called for an investigation.

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