Tomorrow, America will observe Veteran’s Day in honor of the sacrifice and contributions of the more than 25 million men and women who donned the uniform to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. The occasion will surely be marked with remembrance of, and respect for, a future generation of veterans — the 160,000 soldiers fighting in Iraq and another 18,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan. Regardless of the respectable differences that exist regarding the Iraq war, the nation is united in honoring a current generation of soldiers who continue to showcase the courage, bravery, and skill worthy of the honor bestowed upon previous generations of American soldiers. There is increasing widespread concern, however, that as soldiers return from their overseas assignments with physical and mental impairments, the Department of Veterans Affairs may not have the capacity to properly serve them. Because "soldiers in Iraq are surviving wounds that in earlier wars would have been fatal," there will continue to be an increasing need for the Bush administration to provide the necessary resources to "care for those who shall have borne the battle," a mission the administration has not yet properly prepared itself to fulfill.
A NEED THAT HAS NOT BEEN MET: National Adjutant of the Disabled American Veterans, Arthur Wilson, recently wrote, "[I]nstead of honoring its commitment to those whose service and sacrifice have kept us free and safe, our government has launched a devastating assault on benefits for America’s veterans." The frustration results from watching an administration incompetently deal with the need to fund veterans health care and disability services. When President Bush released his annual budget in February 2005, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) said, "If this budget — and its misguided proposals — were enacted, it would devastate VA health care." The American Legion offered similar criticism. A few months later, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) warned, "There is a train wreck coming in veterans’ health care." Rather than address the issue, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson claimed, "I can assure you that VA does not need" additional funds. But then in June, Nicholson came back to Congress and admitted the department didn’t have the sufficient resources to deal with the incoming number of wounded soldiers. Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) called it an "embarrassment." The Senate then voted to approve an extra $1.5 billion for veterans’ health care. Yet, given the increasing demand for VA services, the need still has not been fully met.
UNPREPARED FOR PTSD: As soldiers return from the battlefront, many are reporting that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after life-threatening events such as combat. Victims often suffer with nightmares, flashbacks, sleeplessness and anger and feel detached or estranged." As one soldier described his experience, "My nightmares are so intense I woke up one night with my hands round my fiancee’s throat." Studies show 20 to 30 percent of combat vets will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a recent Army study of veterans returning from Iraq suggests that as many as 240,000 could suffer from some degree of PTSD. USA Today reported that more than "one in four U.S. troops have come home from the Iraq war with health problems that require medical or mental health treatment." Veterans receiving disability checks for PTSD jumped 80 percent from 1999 through 2004, from 120,000 to 216,000. That increase alone cost the VA an additional $2.6 billion in benefits." Secretary Nicholson seems to recognize the problem, recently stating that many of the wounded "will be in the VA system for the rest of their lives." But whether the VA is ready to make a lifetime commitment to these veterans remains to be seen.
A BAD SOLUTION: The VA is reviewing 72,000 veterans who currently receive disability checks for PTSD. The review, seemingly a move to cut costs, may mean some veterans will lose their disability check and others may find it harder to get them. The VA claims it is looking for fraud and paperwork errors, but in the words of veterans advocate Gerald Humphries, "It’s a witch hunt." "If you have got a guy who has got a ‘combat disability mental illness,’ why are you going after him?" "This," said Rick Weidman, legislative director for the Vietnam Veterans of America, "is a war on veterans."
SOME VETERANS COMING HOME ARE FINDING NOTHING: The face of poverty in the Gulf Coast region has another unseen dimension. For veterans returning home to the region, they will find their VA hospitals either destroyed or evacuated. Another problem, as the Christian Science Monitor writes, is that "veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are now showing up in the nation’s homeless shelters. While the numbers are still small, they’re steadily rising. … The concern is that these returning veterans – some of whom can’t find jobs after leaving the military, others of whom are still struggling psychologically with the war – may be just the beginning of an influx of new veterans in need." "When we already have people from Iraq on the streets, my God," said Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. "I have talked to enough (shelters) to know we are getting them. It is happening and this nation is not prepared for that." While an estimated 500,000 veterans were homeless at some time during 2004, the VA had resources to deal with only 100,000 of them.