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Military's shameful treatment of vets

March 16, 2007 | Page 9

DURING THE U.S. wars on Korea and Vietnam, for every U.S. soldier killed, three more were injured. By contrast, for every combat death in Iraq, 16 soldiers suffer injuries.

A combination of advances in field treatment and a streamlined air evacuation system to get the injured to state-of-the-medical facilities in Germany and the U.S. can be credited with saving the lives of thousands of wounded military men and women.

If the Iraq war was being fought at the same death-to-injury rate as during Vietnam, the number of U.S. war dead would be roughly 20,000 instead of 3,190.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon isn't as interested in the health and welfare of soldiers--as recent media revelations of gross neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center demonstrates--once their life-threatening wounds are treated.

Reports in the mainstream press are finally exposing the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed, where soldiers who were saved by the front-line medical aid system endure mice- and mold-infested quarters while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or learning to cope with artificial limbs.

What you can do

Several recent articles provide a useful look at the GI rights movement today. A good place to start is SW's interview with Chanan Suarez Díaz "Dissent in the ranks"; Marc Cooper's "About Face: The Growing Antiwar Movement in the Military"; and "Iraqis are people too," by Cindy Sheehan.

Labor Beat, which produces and distributes progressive media on labor and social issues, has produced an excellent video called the "Rise of the Anti-War Soldier." It's available on the Internet and on DVD.

Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. For news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives, go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site.

Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

David Cortright's excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, Soldiers in Revolt, is available in a new edition from Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

 

The problems aren't limited to Walter Reed, either. Soldiers and their families say the same interminable waits for doctor's appointments, lost paperwork and frustrating attempts to get disability discharges exist at bases and VA hospitals from coast to coast.

For example, the Naval Medical Center in San Diego discharged Sandy Karen's son a few months ago, and told him to report to the barracks for outpatients. Sandy was shocked to find a room buzzing with fruit flies, with an overflowing trash can and a syringe lying on the table.

"The staff sergeant says, 'Here are your linens,' to my son, who can't even stand up," explained Sandy. "This kid has an open wound, and I'm going to put him in a room with fruit flies?" Sandy took her son to a hotel instead.

In the words of Iraq Veterans Against the War Chair Garett Reppenhagen, "The whole system thrives on trying to save a dime at veterans' expense. Walter Reed is a military hospital. It's funded by the Department of Defense. Not funding Walter Reed is just like sending a unit to Iraq without a medic. You might as well leave a soldier dying on the battlefield."

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ACCORDING TO to official statistics, some 50,000 U.S. troops have been wounded on Iraq's battlefields. But this doesn't count certain traumatic brain injuries that go undiagnosed. Or cases of PTSD that the military denies--instead attributing cases of depression, anxiety disorders, inability to concentrate and night terrors to pre-existing "personality disorders," a designation that will follow these soldiers around for the rest of their lives on their military discharge papers.

Because the military is desperate to maintain troop levels, medical discharges are hard to come by. "In the Army--in the midst of a war--the number of soldiers approved for permanent disability retirement has plunged by more than two-thirds, from 642 in 2001 to 209 in 2005, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year," reported the Army Times.

The military is even upgrading medical ratings of soldiers so they can be sent back to Iraq with their units--even if they are medically unfit for deployment, and in some cases too wounded to wear their body armor.

Master Sgt. Ronald Jenkins "has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery," investigative journalist Mark Benjamin wrote in a report in Salon. "He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is 'at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain.'"

Nevertheless, on February 15, an Army doctor cleared Jenkins for duty.

Soldiers suffering from PTSD face the same plight. "I knew a soldier from Fort Carson who came back from Iraq, and this one experience was sticking with him," said the IVAW's Kelly Dougherty.

"They fired some mortars and later found out that it had killed a grandfather and his granddaughter. This guy felt like the mortar he shot had killed them. He didn't have a way to know, but he felt very guilty. And the military simply didn't investigate the deaths of these people. "It got back to his command that he had been talking about this, because in the military your medical records aren't confidential--even records of mental health counseling."

The military decided to place the soldier in a private inpatient mental health care facility, where Kelly visited him. The facility was full of soldiers who had deployed to Iraq as well as a significant number of military spouses. After some weeks of feeling completely isolated, he was finally returned to his unit.

"He really wanted to pursue pushing his claim up so he could get medically discharged and be eligible for benefits, but he ended up giving up because it just seemed too hard," Kelly said. "He eventually accepted an other-than-honorable discharge. By that time, he was just so exhausted by everything they had put him through. He didn't want to have anything to do with it--even if it meant giving up the disability benefits that he would need, and giving up his GI Bill education benefits, which was the main reason why he had joined.

"He couldn't take it. And that's typical of people who are trying to get out, and file their medical claims and get them approved. They get so tired of the bureaucracy, road blocks and red tape that they eventually accept other-than-honorable discharges--and lose eligibility for the benefits they need."

PTSD can also take many months to manifest, so many soldiers are already discharged when they come to the realization that they may have the left the battlefield, but the battlefield didn't leave them. By then, getting adequate treatment, or even a doctor's appointment, is even more difficult in the VA system.

In the first quarter of 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs "treated 20,638 Iraq veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, and they have a backlog of 400,000 cases," according to the California Nurses Association. "A returning soldier has to wait an average of 165 days for a VA decision on initial disability benefits, and an appeal can take up to three years."

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DESPITE ALL the rhetoric from politicians surprised at the substandard medical care that wounded soldiers must contend with, veterans organizations and antiwar groups have been sounding the alarm for years now. For anyone who cared to look, the problems were easy to find.

Historically, veterans have had to organize and fight for the benefits they are owed. Veterans of the 1991 Gulf War struggled for years--and are still fighting--for government recognition of and compensation for Gulf War Syndrome. Before them, Vietnam veterans had to organize to get their conditions recognized.

Thanks to their many years of persistent organizing, the military was finally forced to acknowledge the very idea of PTSD, which has now become an accepted medical diagnosis even for trauma suffered in civilian life.

The glare of media scrutiny provides an opportunity to shame the government into long-overdue action to fix these problems. But as vets of other wars have learned, this is unlikely without continued pressure from the antiwar movement.

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