Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Up Against the Fiscal Cliff

Forget the cuts. Vets need more help!

Veterans are largely protected from being thrown off the “fiscal cliff” if the Republicans in Congress can’t reach a nonpartisan compromise with the Obama Administration.

Largely protected … but still not nearly enough.

Vets won’t get their benefits cut, says Rep. Jeff Miller, Fla., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.  “The good thing is that the law states and the president has agreed that veterans dollars and their benefits are off the table as it relates to the sequestration,” Miller explains. “The only area that the VA is vulnerable in is in some of the administrative areas or some of the areas that (the Department of Defense) actually handles, like Arlington Cemetery.”

That spares the VA from $1.2 trillion in sequestration cuts, but the problem is that the Veterans Administration is completely overwhelmed at the moment with the influx of Vietnam and current-era vets seeking help. Even with a budget that has doubled to $125.3 billion over the past decade, it can’t begin to handle more than 1 million new Iraqi-Afghan vets, about a third of whom are seeking mental health care.

“With as many as 1 million troops due to become veterans in the next five years, on top of the 22.3 million already in the system, the agency is staggering under backlogs in disability compensation claims, bottlenecks in mental health care, and criticism over a general lack of accountability,” Bloomberg News reported last month.

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“The system is completely overwhelmed,” Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist and associate director for the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, told Bloomberg News. “We did not prepare the VA system for what many of us would argue is the natural consequence of combat and protracted warfare, and we’re trying to play catch-up.”

In mid-November, the VA had about 896,000 disability compensation and pension claims pending, almost double the number of cases pending at the end of October 2009. Two thirds of those claims had been in the system for more than 125 days, which is the agency’s target time to have such claims resolved.

Four months may not seem like a long time, but those delays are living hell to vets in physical and emotional pain. Dr. Bruce Swarny has patients who wait at least two months and drive 400 miles round trip to visit him in the Glendive (Mont.) Medical Center. He estimates that about half of them have contemplated suicide.

Montana leads the nation in the rate of suicide, but it’s also a huge problem nationally. The VA estimates that 18 vets a day take their own lives, and 1,600 to 1,800 veterans receiving VA care commit suicide each year, according to a 2011 report by the inspector general.

To understand why, just take a look at Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment – a group of Marine Reservists from Salt Lake City. Tony Dokoupil tells their harrowing story in the Daily Beast.

They arrived in Baghdad a day before the statue of Saddam Hussein fell. As they walked into the city, they accepted flowers from women and patted children on the head. Then their radio operator was shot through the head, and they were in the midst of a withering crossfire.  To protect themselves, they shot at everything that moved – and they killed a bunch of civilians, including women and children.

The Daily Beast reported that: “Although all the men in the unit came home alive, many came home changed. Within five years, one in four had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Today one in two of them carries debilitating psychic wounds, according to an estimate by the men. They are jobless, homeless, disposed to drugs and alcohol, divorced from their spouses, and cut off from their former selves. One made love to his girlfriend, the mother of his twin daughters, then immediately drowned her in a warm bath. If you ask the military and mental-health establishment what happened to the men of Fox Company, the answer is simple: they lived through ‘events that involved actual or threatened death,’ felt ‘intense fear,’ and like the 300,000 other service members who share this narrow official path to PTSD, they were badly shaken by it.”

Their full story is at http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/02/a-new-theory-of-ptsd-and-veterans-moral-injury.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=cheatsheet_afternoon&cid=newsletter%3Bemail%3Bcheatsheet_afternoon&utm_term=Cheat%20Sheet. It’s a heart-breaking tale, but a must-read nonetheless.

That’s why it’s not enough just to have the VA protected from sequestration cuts. It must be strengthened and streamlined to provide care to the men and women that this country has put into harm’s way.

I also have to say that I’m personally outraged by the political posturing and the partisanship that I see each day in Washington. This isn’t about winning a jousting match with the Obama Administration. It’s about human lives.

A quarter  century ago, when there still was some civility in Washington, D.C., former President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a remarkable point to his would-be biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Johnson said: “A political party at a national convention draws up a program to present to the voters. The voters can either accept it by giving the party full power, reject it by taking the party completely out of power, or give it qualified approval by giving one party the Congress and the other party the presidency. And when we in the Congress have been given a qualified mandate, as we were in 1956, it means that we have a solemn responsibility to cooperate with the president and produce a program that is neither his blueprint nor our blueprint but a combination of the two. It is the politician’s task to pass legislation, not to sit around saying principled things.”

Well, that’s exactly what we have today: a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, but a stanchly Republican House of Representatives. The only thing we lack today is Johnson’s “solemn responsibility to cooperate.”

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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