Support our Troops! Provide Healthcare When They Get Home

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In case you haven’t been keeping track, ately, the latest Department of Defense figures
indicate that the U.S. is quickly approaching
2,500 soldier deaths and 18,000 casualties in
Iraq. While anti-war activists have been vigilant
about exposing the lies that led us into this
war and demanding “troops home now,” we have not been
attentive enough to the plight of veterans, many of whom lack
access to proper healthcare. Supporting our troops should mean
more than affixing a bumper-sticker saying so; it should mean
paying attention to casualties and pressuring the Bush administration
to support the Veteran’s Administration (VA).
Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and Iraq Veterans
Against the War (IVAW) released a stunning report last year
documenting the shortage of healthcare for veterans, arguing
that 1/3 of veterans under 25 years of age lack health insurance.
Moreover, according to United Press International, “Iraq veterans
are beginning to show up at homeless shelters around the
country.” The rate of amputation is twice as high as it was in
WWI and WWII, and the rates of Traumatic Brain Injury, Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Depleted-Uranium-related illness
surpass those of all other wars.
The VVAW and IVAW “work with veterans every day who
deal with the painful realities of a healthcare system that rejects
them because it is under-funded, understaffed and most importantly
because it is being broken down and torn apart by a government
who seems to value their death more than their lives.”
As the VAbudget is cut and healthcare costs rise, it is becoming
more and more difficult for veterans to access health care. In
the FY 2006 budget, for example, co-pays doubled and annual
enrollment fees rose to $250. In 2004, Knight Ridder found that
approximately 572,000 eligible veterans were not accessing
services. As the war in Iraq drags on, veterans’ medical issues
are becoming more profound and complex, and at the same
time the VA system is facing a serious crisis.
Thanks to medical and technological advances, fewer soldiers
are dying in the current war compared to previous ones.
However, many suffer massive injuries that will affect them for
the rest of their lives. In addition to the increased numbers of
amputations and mental health disorders, another unique problem
for many Iraq veterans is TBI. In fact, TBI is emerging as
“the signature injury of the Iraq war,” with anywhere between
25% and 60% of bomb-blast survivors suffering from a condition
that impairs cognitive functioning and often goes hand-inhand
with PTSD.
Only four VA facilities around the country are speciallyequipped
to handle TBI cases, and in some cases the symptoms
(including headaches, light and noise sensitivity, memory loss,
anxiety, depression, and difficulty solving problems) are so
mild that it goes undiagnosed, much like “shaken-baby syndrome.”
Permanent brain damage results about half of the time,
and in the most extreme cases soldiers must learn to walk, talk,
and use the toilet all over again.
Rocket-propelled grenades, improved explosive devices,
mortars, and land mines are common causes of U.S. injuries
and deaths in Iraq, all of them tending to cause head traumas
that would have killed soldiers in previous wars. Although body
armor and helmets are keeping more soldiers alive in such
blasts, TBI leaves no physical traces and is sometimes overlooked.
As the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, supported
by the Department of Defense, notes, mild brain injuries
are often dismissed as “getting your bell rung.” Most Iraq war
TBI victims are 21 years of age.
In the Fall 2005 issue of The Ve t e r a n, Ray Parrish, the
V VAW ’s military counselor, documented the difficulties veterans face in making a PTSD claim. In order to
satisfy what he calls “the VA’s obsessive compulsion
with documentation,” veterans are
forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops
and endless technicalities to receive care.
This, of course, either deters them from seeking
help or delays the process until it is sometimes
too late.
For example, “being in a war isn’t the same
as being ‘engaged in combat’ for the VA,” so
those suffering from mental disorders due to a
service-related incident–but not necessarily
one that the military considers “in combat”—
must wade through the legalese of getting
notarized ‘buddy statements’ to prove that the
stressor did, in fact, occur. If the veteran fails
to go through the complicated series of
appeals, examinations, and hearings, or fails to
do so within a certain amount of time, the
health benefits are cut.
Excerpted in a VVAW and IVAW report
entitled From Vietnam to Iraq: Ignoring the
Veteran Health Care Crisis is a letter sent to
Senator Cornyn (R-TX) from Jason Thelen, a
soldier who served in Sadr City. Thelen argues
that “the VA system and military doctors
refuse to recognize the damage that the war in
Iraq is causing,” and he tells the stories of three
of his fellow soldiers that suffered from PTSD
after the war and failed to get adequate treatment.
Most shocking is that of “Arthur V.,”
who faced serious problems re-adjusting to
civilian life after serving and earning a Bronze
Star in Iraq: “Alcohol, PTSD, and family problems
worsened, and nothing helped. In the
summer of 2004, he donned his formal Army
uniform, placed a noose around his neck, and
stepped from a bridge, killing himself.” Thelen
tells of others whose physical injuries and psychological
problems have gone undiagnosed;
in one case, a troubled soldier was sent on a
dangerous mission as “punishment.”
Finally, whereas TBI and PTSD are becoming
more recognized as legitimate casualties of
war, a third factor, DU, carries a great deal of
controversy. A veteran of the Gulf War and
Kosovo intervention with whom I correspond
captured the attitude when he recently
remarked, “I never believed the DU stuff.”
The effects of DU are only beginning to be
understood, for DU itself is only very mildly
radioactive and was previously believed to
cause no harm as long as it stays outside of the
human body. During the first Gulf War, DU
was used to tip bullets, partially as a way to get
rid of toxic waste. However, upon impact, it
begins to burn and release dust-like particles of
highly-radioactive U-238 into the air, which
can in turn be inhaled. Some believe DU to be
the cause of the mysterious “Gulf War Sickness,”
which has caused kidney damage, birth
defects, cancers, neurological problems, and
even death for nearly one out of seven Gulf
War veterans.
The U.S. continues to produce and use DU
munitions, the long-term effect of which for
soldiers and civilians alike could be devastating.
Exact estimates vary, but the consensus is
that the use of DU during the Gulf War pales in
comparison to the current Iraq war.
Sources: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count
( h t t p : / / i c a s u a l t i e s . o rg); V VAW ( w w w. v v a w
.org); IVAW (www.ivaw.org); TrapRock Peace
Center (www.traprockpeace.org); Robina Riccitiello,
“Casualty of War,” Newsweek (web
exclusive, 17 March 2006): http://www.
m s n b c . m s n . c o m / i d / 11 8 8 2 1 6 4 / s i t e / n e w s w e e k . ;
DVBIC (www.dvbic.org)

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