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VA Seeks to Punish Iraq War Veterans
Oct. 15, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard
The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) is reviewing one-third of the cases of veterans who are receiving disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After conducting an internal study the VA believes it was too lenient in deciding which soldiers were eligible for PTSD benefits. Last year, the VA spent $4.3 billion on PTSD disability and the VA hopes to reduce these payments by revoking PTSD benefits for many veterans. This will be the final insult to soldiers who were asked to fight a war in Iraq on false premises.
Owing to the war in Iraq the number of veterans receiving compensation for PTSD has increased by almost 80 percent in the last five years. By comparison, the number of veterans receiving compensation for all other types of disabilities only increased by 12 percent. Under the guidelines of the current review, soldiers who cannot prove that a specific incident, known as a “stressor,” was sufficient to cause PTSD, their benefits will be revoked. Given the nature of warfare in Iraq it’s not surprising that many returning soldiers are suffering from mental illness.
In the July 2004 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine Colonel Charles W. Hoge, M.D., the chief of psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Institute, published a preliminary study of the effects of the war in Iraq on military personnel. The study concluded that almost 20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq returned home suffering from PTSD. The study found that there is a clear correlation between combat experience and PTSD. The study concluded that, “Rates of PTSD were significantly higher after combat duty in Iraq.”
Approximately 86 percent of the soldiers in the study were involved in combat in Iraq. On average, soldiers engaged in two firefights for each tour of duty. And 56 percent of soldiers had killed an enemy combatant. An estimated 28 percent were directly responsible for the death of a civilian. Additionally, 68 percent witnessed fellow soldiers being killed or seriously wounded.
Although the number of soldiers suffering from PTSD is high, Dr. Hoge’s study found that a majority of veterans are not seeking treatment. Only 40 percent of returning soldiers acknowledged that they need mental health care, and only 26 percent were receiving care. As such, the number of veterans approved for PTSD compensation by the VA is relatively small. Yet the VA believes too many soldiers were approved for PTSD disability compensation and is now seeking to deny soldiers this benefit.
The lack of pre-war intelligence also contributed to a rise in PTSD claims. Studies of the Vietnam War have indicated that when soldiers can’t anticipate the nature and intensity of warfare that they ultimately encounter they are psychologically unprepared, leading to PTSD in many instances. During the early phase of the war in Iraq, many soldiers were unprepared for what they encountered.
The Bush administration initially indicated that the war would be quick and easy. Vice President Cheney, only a few days after the invasion of Iraq, infamously stated that soldiers “…will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Ahmed Chalabi, a close advisor to the Bush administration prior to and immediately following the invasion said, “American troops will be greeted with flowers and candy” by the Iraqi people, and the administration repeated this many times. President Bush flew onto a U.S. aircraft carrier in May 2003 and, while standing beneath a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” announced that major combat operations had ended.
It’s easy to understand why the VA has seen an increase in soldiers seeking benefits due to PTSD. What’s difficult to comprehend is why the very agency responsible for meeting the needs of our veterans is now turning its back on them. Perhaps the Bush administration is seeking to reduce compensation to soldiers for PTSD so that more money can be diverted to the on-going war in Iraq. Or, perhaps the effort to revoke PTSD benefits is an attempt to assert that the war has not been that devastating. What is certain is that the very people asked to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, for the nation are now being punished for doing so.