Michael Blecker & Amy Fairweather / Swords into Plowshares – 2006-11-10 23:21:23
Forgotten — Except on Veterans Day
Michael Blecker & Amy Fairweather / Swords into Plowshares
What I saw — I mean I’ve seen death and destruction before — but what we had to endure in Iraq was almost unbearable.
— US Army Capt. Jarrell Southall, Newark
(November 10, 2006) — During the Vietnam War, US troops were deployed for a horrific, yearlong tour of duty. In the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan today, a much smaller, but still significant, number of Americans are sent to a hellish battle zone for two, three and even four tours of duty.
Since America mobilized after 9/11, the organization I lead, Swords to Plowshares, has met with Bay Area veterans and their families through our Iraq Veteran Project. Some of the vets we talk with are doing well. Others are struggling. All have tales to tell of the hardships visited on them and their peers — divorce, debt, homes lost, jobs lost, businesses lost, nightmares, panic attacks, rages, fear of redeployment and suicide.
Some 1.3 million Americans have been deployed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These service members and their families endure enormous sacrifice, not just on Veterans Day but every day of the year and for many years to come. And yet, our government has failed to ensure that they will be taken care of upon their return.
Tomorrow, as we commemorate Veterans Day for the fifth time since Operation Enduring Freedom began with the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, it is appropriate to consider how our government is helping GIs and veterans cope with these challenges — or not.
The Military. According to Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, the military has referred just 1 in 5 service members found to be at risk of post traumatic stress syndrome to mental-health providers. Mood-altering drugs are doled out to troops, who are then bounced back into combat duty with no psychiatric oversight.
The US Department of Defense says they don’t track how many troops and their families are taking medications for depression. Thanks to the efforts of US Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., among others, the US Department of Defense has been forced to take unprecedented action and establish the DOD Task Force on Mental Health. This task force is conducting public hearings throughout the country, with the next one scheduled for San Francisco.
The Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to anticipate increased demand for mental-health services resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA expected to treat 2,900 war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, in fact, as of June, Veterans Affairs had seen 34,000. This number is growing daily and will continue to grow, as the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are often delayed and stigma of acknowledging mental-health problems keeps many veterans from seeking care until they have no choice.
Despite this growing need, according to GAO reports, the VA failed to spend $53 million budgeted for mental-health programs and failed to inform medical officials of the availability or intended purpose of the funds.
In the past nine months, the numbers of combat veterans served by Vet Centers has tripled, but staffing has risen by just 10 percent. These are the community-based walk-in centers (profiled in the comic strip Doonesbury), which provide readjustment counseling in an informal atmosphere more welcoming to young veterans than a VA hospital. Dedicated staff are working overtime, but report that they are unable to provide individual therapy when indicated and thus are limiting, rather than expanding, mental-health services to families.
Claims for VA disability benefits have increased 36 percent since 2000: The backlog has never been greater. It can take months or years for disabled veterans to secure benefits they deserve as a result of their military service. The complexity of Iraq combat disabilities, such as traumatic brain injury, environmental hazards and post-traumatic stress disorder, may slow the process further. If a veteran’s claim is upheld, he or she is entitled to retroactive benefits. But they and their families can face severe financial difficulties while they await resolution of their claims.
Recent reports published by the National Security Archives show a disturbing disparity in claims resolution between National Guard and Reserve and regular forces. Fewer Guard and Reserve members are filing claims than their regular Army counterparts and are half as likely to prevail. This information was released only after threat of lawsuit from veterans’ rights organizations.
Congress. In April 2005, the “Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act” was introduced, only to languish and die. The bill laid out a proactive strategy for the VA and the Pentagon to recognize mental-health needs and respond quickly. Dr. Charles Hoge, whose study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that one-third of returning troops are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and thus would qualify for mental-health services, testified to the enormous unmet need in subcommittee hearings.
And yet, Congress did not value our service members enough to hold full legislative hearings on the subject. Instead, it slashed funding for Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center by half in the 2007 Defense Appropriations bill. This, despite knowing that traumatic brain injury caused by the concussive force of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is the signature wound of this war.
It failed to move legislation that would have extended presumptive VA health-care eligibility from two years to five years. Considering the delayed onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, this shorter coverage will impose unnecessary and cruel obstacles for veterans in need of mental-health services. Congress also failed to approve legislation that would have provided counseling and supportive services to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at risk for homelessness.
We will ensure veterans have a voice. For your part, let your lawmakers know that you support reintroduction of the Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act. And let it be hoped that, next year, we, as a nation do better by our veterans.
What You Can Do
o Learn more. Express your views.
o How: Attend the US Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health public hearings on November 20 and 21 in San Francisco.
o For information, contact Swords-to-Plowshares (415) 252-4782 or US Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office (202)224-3553.
Michael Blecker is the executive director of Swords to Plowshares — San Francisco. Amy Fairweather is the Iraq Veteran Project coordinator. Swords to Plowshares is a nonprofit organization that provides counseling, training, housing and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. (www.swords-to-plowshares.org).
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle
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