Abandoning Middle East Veterans
This is the fourth of a series of posts highlighting the important work of the veteran owned and operated GI coffeehouse movement. Coffee Strong at Fort Lewis is continuing their September fundraising drive, as they are well-short of their $20,000 goal. In addition to providing desperately needed GI support, GI coffeehouses remain one of the strongest and consistent voices in the antiwar movement. Please go to http://www.coffeestrong.org/ and donate generously. Under the Hood at Fort Hood http://www.underthehoodcafe.org/ equally deserves your support.
“Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and all of the resulting harms to soldiers, civilians, economies and constitutional principles, no segment of society has been more abused and neglected than returning U.S. military veterans.” Houston Chronicle December 14, 2008 (http://www.chron.com/opinion/editorials/article/A-good-soldier-Gen-Shinseki-an-inspired-choice-1594310.php).
GIs with mental health issues suffer even worse neglect and maltreatment following discharge. A Nextgov study in March 2011 revealed that that slightly more than half of all Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans treated by the Veterans Affairs Department received care for mental health problems, roughly four times the rate of the general population (http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110322_2917.php?oref=topnews). These findings were consistent with a 2008 Rand Study showing that 19 percent of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans suffered from traumatic brain injury, 14 percent met criteria for major depression, and 14 percent met criteria for PTSD. Another 2008 report (by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) found that 9% of veterans aged 21-39 had experienced at least one episode of major depression in the previous year (http://www.hhs.gov/asl/testify/2010/03/t20100323a.html).
Yet, like thousands of active duties troops forced to seek treatment in the civilian sector ( due to a severe shortage of military psychiatrists and psychologists), many veterans face long VA waiting lists for legally mandated treatment for combat-related conditions (see http://www.veteransforcommonsense.org/index.php/veterans-category-articles/1216-paul-sullivan-and-lauren-hohle and http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110511_7685.php).
Grossly Inadequate VA Funding
The root cause of this problem has been the unwillingness of both the Bush and Obama administration to increase VA funding to levels required of a nation deploying more than 100,000 troops in a war that has already lasted more than ten years. Last month a federal appeals court in California on Tuesday ordered the Department of Veteran Affairs to develop a system wide mental health care plan, citing “unchecked incompetence” in the department’s care for veterans. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, on the 9th Circuit Appeals Court in Pasadena, found that many veterans with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are forced to wait weeks for services the VA is legally obligated to provide. He noted that, on average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day and another 1,000 attempt suicide each month.
1,000 Marines Excluded from VA Services
Judge Reinhardt’s ruling won’t help more than a thousand marines banned from receiving VA services due to Chapter 14 discharges. When classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arise – including alcoholism and drug abuse – marines are typically punished for the behavior. Their less-than-honorable discharges often leads to a denial of VA benefits. According to Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who supervises the legal defense of Marines in the western USA, “The Marine Corps has created these mental health issues in combat veterans, and then we just kind of kick them out into the streets.” (http://www.ptsdsupport.net/chapter14-4.html)
Unemployment and homelessness are also major issues for many returning Middle East veterans. More than 10,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are homeless, a number that has doubled three times since 2006. http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2011/07/usat-homelessness-among-iraq-afghanistan-vets-rises-072511/ The VA blames the rise in veteran homelessness on a poor economy and the voluntary nature of military service – where a limited number of troops are out of the job market during a long period of multiple deployments. Many reservists who signed up to drill one weekend a month wind up losing their jobs and careers. They return from the Middle East to extremely bleak employment prospects in a jobless recovery.
Denial of Retirement Credit for Reservists and Guard
Meanwhile career reservists and National Guard find they are being denied the retirement credit Congress granted them in 2008 for deployment in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. The law stipulates that career Guard and Reserve members called up for 90 days or more earn credit towards early retirement for each day of mobilization “in any fiscal year.” The Pentagon interpretation is that a 90-day period of service has to be completely served within a single fiscal year. Because the federal fiscal year goes from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, a Guard member deployed for three months beginning in September can’t count the time because the 90 days is split between two fiscal years (http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2011/03/ap-retirement-credit-law-riles-guard-reserve-vets/).
This adds insult to injury for troops already upset that Congress only included Guard and Reserve members deployed after the law was signed in early 2008, leaving out the 600,000 troops mobilized between Sept. 11, 2001 and the time the law was enacted.
To be continued.