VA Seeks to Punish Iraq War Veterans
October 19, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard
The Veterans Affairs Department is currently reviewing approximately
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 that they were too lenient in
deciding which soldiers were eligible for PTSD benefits. Last year,
the VA spent $4.3 billion on PTSD disability payments 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 and Afghanistan, 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, if soldiers
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 and Afghanistan, 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 and Afghanistan on military personnel. The study
concluded that close to 20 percent of soldiers who served in Iraq,
and approximately 12 percent of those who served in Afghanistan
returned home suffering from PTSD. The study found that there is
a clear correlation between combat experience and the prevalence
of PTSD. The study determined that, "Rates of PTSD were significantly
higher after combat duty in Iraq."
Approximately 86 percent of soldiers in Iraq were involved in
combat, as were 31 percent in Afghanistan. On average, soldiers
engaged in two firefights for each tour of duty. The study indicated
that 95 percent of soldiers had been shot at. And 56 percent of
soldiers had killed an enemy combatant. An estimated 28 percent
were directly responsible for the death of a civilian. Equally grim,
94 percent had seen or handled corpses or bodily remains. 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 actually receiving
care. As such, the number of veterans approved for PTSD compensation
by the VA is relatively small. Yet the VA believes that 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 likely contributed to a
rise in PTSD disability 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 almost certainly 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 post-traumatic stress disorder. 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 it's
attributable to money. The Bush administration may be seeking to
reduce compensation to soldiers for PTSD so that more money can
be diverted to the on-going war in Iraq.
Or, perhaps this is simply a public relations issue. The effort
to revoke PTSD benefits may be 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.
Gene C. Gerard taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years
at several colleges in the south-west, and is a contributing author
to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press.