More American troops are reportedly returning home alive from the Middle East thanks in part to advances in military medicine. Unfortunately, many return home troubled by physical and mental injuries, needing treatment, recovery and retraining that can’t be received in a timely manner or cheaply, quickly becoming economic casualties of the mismanaged war on terror.
Gamal Awad is one of those more than 185,000 soldiers. He was a marine who pulled burned bodies from the ruins of the Pentagon after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He survived the horrors he saw in Kuwait and Iraq, but every morning he needs to think of a reason not to kill himself.
Awad is one of a growing number of veterans and their families who no longer trust the government to take care of them the way they should be taken care of. Instead of being treated like a hero, veterans are being caught up in an endless loop of red tape and inefficient funds set aside to treat the wounded.
Awad can’t look at the photograph showing him receiving a Marine heroism medal for his recovery work at the Pentagon. It might bring back memories of a burned woman whose skin peeled off in his hands when he tried to comfort her. He can still hear the rockets shrieking in Iraq, still smell the burning fuel, and still relives the blast that blew him right out of bed.
No matter what he does, the memories keep coming back. “Nothing can turn off those things,” he says, voice choked and eyes glistening.
Disability Payments Causing Financial Disarray
Finances and thoughts of suicide are constantly on Awad’s mind. He owes $43,000 in credit card debt and has a $5,700-a-month adjustable home mortgage and equity loan payment. He can’t sell his home because he owes more on it than it’s worth, and may soon lose it to the bank. He receives $4,330 each month in federal checks as compensation for his disability.
Awad used to earn $100,000 a year as a 16-year veteran major with a master’s degree. Now he can’t even manage his own life.
Ironically, Awad was given a “general” discharge 15 months ago because of an extramarital affair with a female Marine, in spite of his military therapists blaming his impulsive conduct on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) aggravated by his tours in the Middle East. Fortunately, though not honorable, his rights to medical care and disability payments were left in tact. Since developing PTSD, Awad has divorced.
High Price Of Caring For Wounded Veterans Unanticipated
One year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was guaranteeing two years of free care to returning combat veterans for virtually any medical condition with a possible service link.
Few predicted such a long lasting quagmire in Iran. “A lot of people based their planning on lower numbers of casualties in a very short war,” says Paul Rieckhoff, an Army combat veteran who founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Government data from one study shows that 16 wounded for every one fatality are returning from the war in the Middle East. Many are returning with multiple amputations or other physically disabling injuries which aren’t completely fixed by fancy prosthetics, methodical rehabilitation and job retraining.
By Pentagon estimates, more than 29,000 soldiers so far have been wounded in combat in the Middle East. Tens of thousands more were hurt outside of combat, or in other ways that show up later.
The government is making progress. Of 1.4 million U.S. forces deployed for Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 185,000 have sougt care from the VA (a number that could easily possibly eventually top 700,000. More than 52,000 have already been treated for PTSD symptoms alone.
More Progress Is Needed
Cambodian-American Sgt. Pisay Tan had his legs blown off eight months into his second tour of duty in Iraq by a makeshift bomb that blasted his armored vehicle. Tan had to rely on private donations and family as well as the government. The government treated Tan and paid for his artificial legs.
John Waltz blames his PTSD on rescue work at a plane crash aboard a carrier bound for an Iraqi tour. While his condition and disability were being evaluated, he ran up almost $12,000 worth of medical bills. Despite his wife’s work and Social Security, their yearly income was cut in half to $30,000.
The VA already treats more than 5.5 million patients each year. Economic forecast vary widely for the cost of caring for injured veterans returning from the Middle East, but they range as high as $700 billion for the VA alone, rivaling the cost of fighting the war in Iraq. In recent years, the VA has repeatedly run out of money to care for sick and wounded veterans, and has had to ask for billions more before the next budget.
Often times the costs fall on veterans and their families. Ted Wade can’t drive or think straight since a bomb blast tore off an arm, hurt his foot, and wracked his brain. He and his wife have had to lower their living standards and accept house payments from their parents.
Feds Say Costs Aren’t Hurting Quality of Care
Recently, at a ribbon cutting ceremony, Army Vice Chief of Staff General Richard Cody touted a new rehab center for amputees as “proff that when it comes to making good on such an important promise, there is no bottom line.”
Since President Bush was appointed to the White House, medical spending for veterans has risen 83 percent. That does include the increased numbers of all veterans treated, not just veterans returning from the Middle East.
The VA usually does a good job handling major known wounds, especially in the early month. The military, Social Security Administration, Labor Department and other agencies add other important federal benefits. Unfortunately, many veterans and their families say the VA often restricts rehabilitation, or cuts it off too quickly.
Private sector insurance for major injuries is available at low cost to service members. It will pay up to $100,000 to help cover costs of rehabilitation, but many think it isn’t enough.
Disability payments supply monthly income to the wounded, but the VA focuses on replacing lost earnings.
Joshua Elmore says the $1,200-a-month disability payments he receives don’t even come close to replacing what he’s lost. A rocket attack on an Iraq Marine base shattered bones in his arm and left him with other injuries. He can still do odd jobs and go to culinary school, but he can’t run with his two little girls and he sometimes limps when he walks.
Outside Help For Wounded Veterans
Some wounded veterans end up turning to private health insurance and other programs outside the federal government.
Sean Lunde is an Iraq veteran with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services. He says his agency rushes emergency funds to some wounded veterans.
Other service nonprofits also pay for emergency shelter, housing, job training, food, clothing and transportation for wounded veterans straddled with financial problems.
T.J. Cantwell of Rebuilding Together says his group puts an average of $20,000 (plus donated supplies and labor) into houses they modify for injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. His group make improvements to the home of Army Sgt. 1st Class Juanita Wilson, a 33-year-old mother of two who lost part of her arm during a homemade bomb blast in Iraq. She has remained on active duty to preserve her retirement.
Despite the extra help, too many families are still dropping tens of thousands of dollars on travel to hospitals, hotel room stays, therapies and on making their homes and vehicles accessible to the disabled.
More Needs To Be Done
Psychologist Michael Wagner, founder of the nonprofit U.S. Welcome Home Foundation and a retired Army medical officers says “what the VA has to offer is insufficient economically to take care of the impact of what happens.”
A few months ago veterans groups sued the VA seeking quicker medical care and disability payments for those diagnosed with PTSD, claiming that the crush of shattered troops has sent the agency into a “virtual meltdown.” The VA challenged the lawsuit on technical grounds, arguing that even though VA rules commit to two years of free care, that is dependant upon Congress setting aside enough money.
Numerous recommendations have come from veterans, federal advisers and others. Nearly everyone begs for more VA money and staff for medical treatment, although few specify where extra resources would be found and prospects currently remain unclear.