Sunday, December 23, 2007

Joe Galloway's Christmas Column on veterans treatment

Be ashamed of veterans' shabby treatment
Posted on Sun, Dec. 23, 2007Digg AIM reprint print email
As you do your holiday shopping and think about a big turkey dinner and piles of gifts and the good life that most Americans enjoy, please spare a thought for those who made it all possible: Those who serve in our military and the veterans who have worn the uniform.

There are some new statistics that give us reason to be ashamed for the way that our country has treated those who have served and sacrificed for us.

Those statistics damn the politicians who start every speech by thanking the troops and veterans and blessing them. They indict our national leaders who turn up at military bases and the annual conventions of veteran's organizations and use troops and veterans as a backdrop for their photo-ops.

Consider this:

• An average of 18 veterans commit suicide each and every day of the year, according to recent statistics from the Veterans Administration. That's 126 veterans who kill themselves every week. Or some 6,552 who take their lives each year. Our veterans are killing themselves at twice the rate of other Americans.

• One quarter of the homeless people in America are military veterans. That's one in every four. Is that ragged man huddled on the steam grate in a brutal winter wind a Vietnam vet? Did that younger man panhandling for pocket change on the street corner fight in Kandahar or Fallujah?

VA fails them

For the past four years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been insisting that it's doing everything it needs to for the nation's veterans. That's simply not true, particularly when it comes to the VA's treatment of mental-health issues.

As my McClatchy colleague Chris Adams has reported in a series of groundbreaking stories this year, the VA mental-health system -- even by its own measures -- wasn't prepared to give returning veterans the mental care they need.

Experts say that between 20 percent and 30 percent of all troops returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But many of the VA hospitals didn't have the PTSD programs that experts say are vital. Soldiers returning from Iraq are allowed to slip unnoticed into their old lives, and neither the Department of Defense nor the VA does anything to monitor their mental health.

The VA keeps telling Congress that all is well. That's not true, either. As Adams reported, the VA has been using fudged or inflated numbers to do so. And after years of promising that it's getting a growing backlog of disability-compensation applications under control, things actually got worse this year.

No matter whether they've been wounded and need follow-up care and support, or whether they're coming apart at the seams and feeling suicidal, they sometimes must wait months for an appointment to be evaluated and treated at VA medical centers.

Bloated war budget

The same people who don't blink at spending $3 billion a week on their war of choice in Iraq were the ones who cut the VA budget, privatized maintenance at Walter Reed Army Hospital and opposed every attempt to expand benefits for veterans old and young.

They're the same people who turned a blind eye as their corporate sponsors and private donors looted billions of dollars from the Treasury with no-compete contracts and bloated bills. f As a wave of wounded troops suffering brain injuries from the blasts of roadside bombs and landmines poured into military hospitals, these people, posing as fiscally responsible budget makers, were cutting in half the money spent on research into brain injuries. These frauds who love to pose as wartime leaders sat back and did nothing as a cruel bureaucracy sent bill collectors out to harass double-amputee veterans for thousands of dollars because they neglected to turn in their armored vests and other gear to the supply sergeant after they were blown apart on the battlefield.

All of this is shameful -- shameful for a people whose freedom and prosperity rest on the backs of those soldiers but who have forgotten them so completely that they haven't held their Congress and their president responsible for this stain on our honor.

Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.

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