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No Way to Treat Our Veterans

Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are welcomed by an overwhelmed health system and budget cuts to their care.

Next year, the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system expects to treat 263,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, a number three times what the VA initially projected. “The number of veterans coming into the VA health care system has been rising by about five percent a year, as the number of people returning from Iraq with illnesses or injuries keeps rising.” President Bush has promised that our nation would “keep its commitments to those who have risked their lives for our freedom.” “We owe them all we can give them,” Bush said after a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “Not only for when they’re in harm’s way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service.” Recent reporting has painted a different picture: McClatchy found the VA is “ill-equipped” to handle the increasing number of returning soldiers who need treatment for mental health; the Associated Press revealed that the recent Bush budget contains funding cuts for veterans; and The Washington Post discovered that soldiers housed at Walter Reed face the “bleakest” of homecomings. “Our veterans’ mental and physical health is not something to play games with,” the Macon Telegraph wrote recently. “They have served their country, and their country has an absolute obligation to return the favor.”

  • Walter Reed is overwhelmed and has deteriorated to a dilapidated state. Dana Priest and Anne Hull of The Washington Post revealed over the weekend that Walter Reed, once perceived as the “crown jewel of military medicine,” has become “something else entirely–a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.” “While the hospital is a place of scrubbed-down order and daily miracles,” Priest and Hull write, “the outpatients in the Other Walter Reed encounter a messy bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas.” Building 18, which for many soldiers “symbolizes the indifference and neglect that many of the wounded say they experience at Walter Reed,” “has been plagued with mold, leaky plumbing, and a broken elevator.” Priest admitted Walter Reed’s dilapidated condition was “surprising.” “We think that the American–we know that the American people support the troops, no matter what they think of the war,” Priest said on last night’s edition of “PBS Newshour.” “And so, when we started hearing these stories of neglect, and in some cases indifference, it was unbelievable.”

  • The VA is not dealing properly with the most pervasive injury from the war: post-traumatic stress disorder. “[I]t is the invisible psychological harm–primarily post-traumatic stress disorder–that is the most pervasive and pernicious injury from this war, and that is emerging as its signature disability,” The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote. “Veterans’ advocates say it is the number one issue facing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.” Thirty-five percent of Iraq veterans received mental health care after returning home, and 12 percent were diagnosed with a mental health ailment. Despite the staggering figures, the “VA isn’t prepared to give these returning soldiers the care that could best help them overcome destructive, and sometimes fatal,” illnesses. McClatchy Newspapers found the “average veteran with psychiatric troubles gets almost one-third fewer visits with specialists than he would have received a decade ago.” A Government Accountability Office report found last year the VA “did not spend all of the extra $300 million it budgeted to increase mental health services and failed to keep track of how some of the money was used.”

  • It is time for Congress to step in and help. In a survey conducted last year, the Pentagon Inspector General’s Office “found that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan lack sufficient armored vehicles, heavy weapons such as artillery or large machine guns, devices designed to jam signals used to detonate roadside bombs, and communications equipment.” “As a result,” the survey found that “service members performed missions without the proper equipment, used informal procedures to obtain equipment and sustainment support, and canceled or postponed missions while waiting to receive equipment.” Nearly four years since the Iraq war began, military families are still raising money on their own to buy their loved ones the most state-of-the-art body armor. The Center for American Progress has repeatedly called for Congress to provide full equipment reset funding for the Army and Marine Corps. Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has said he will unveil legislation next month that would set strict standards for troop readiness before soldiers are sent to Iraq as part of Bush’s escalation plan. Under the Murtha plan, troops would have to be “full combat ready” before deploying: “troops must have at least one year at home between combat deployments; combat assignments could not be extended beyond one year;” and “a ‘stop-loss’ program forcing soldiers to extend their enlistment periods would be prohibited.” Learn more about the Murtha plan here.