40% of US troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan troops require medical treatment

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The latest information from Veterans for Common Sense shows a continued increase in the number of veterans who are seeking medical care from VA hospitals and clinics, and another steep increase in the number of returning troops who are diagnosed with mental health conditions.

The latest numbers show tha4 347,750 (40% of all patients) have been treated at VA medical facilities.

147,744 have been treated for mental health problems, of whom about half have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  For complete records, see:

What Counts as ‘Success’ in Iraq?

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The Boston Globe

By John Tirman

A VOLUBLE attempt to describe the Iraq war as a success is widely apparent, and will increase as the Republican National Convention nears. John McCain is staking his campaign on this assertion. There is little doubt that the level of violence in Iraq has subsided noticeably in the last 12 months. But is this “victory”?

Two notions are in play. First is whether what exists now, or will in the near term, is a favorable and sustainable outcome and is due particularly to the “surge” of US troops since early 2007. Second is whether the price of this outcome is acceptable.

On the first matter, the reductions in violence are mainly due to the withdrawal of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia and the cooperation of many Sunni tribes in ridding Iraq of foreign extremists. A fervent debate among experts is indecisive about why Iraqis pulled back from the wicked killing of 2006 and early 2007. Some is due to a change in US strategy. But all the actors with explosives began to see the futility of their tactics, apparently, and have altered course.

No one knows how sustainable these gains might be. Will Sadr reenter the fray once US troops are drawn down? Will Sunnis return to resistance if Shia political dominance continues?

Civil wars of long standing tend to persist if a broad and enforceable political settlement cannot be reached, and so far none is in sight in Iraq. So the prognosis for more armed conflict, perhaps many years in duration at a low level, remains troubling.

One outcome that seems irreversible is the primacy of Iran. This was widely predicted before the war was started, and it is now apparent. All of Iraq’s leaders, including the president, a Kurd, are friendly with Iran and regard it as an important ally. In Bush circles, this new prominence for Iran is never linked to the war, as if occurring by itself.

So the visible political outcome in Iraq (setting aside the original target of the invasion, the nonexistent WMDs) is not usefully described as a success. There is a level of violence and political fragmentation that in other places would not be hailed as victory. And these recent gains may be temporary.

Perhaps more important are the costs of the venture. The facts are sobering. About 5,000 Americans have been killed, including military personnel, contractors, and aid workers. Another 30,000 or more are wounded, and estimates of those with post-traumatic stress disorder are as high as 300,000. The financial costs are estimated to reach $3 trillion eventually.

For Iraqis, of course, the costs are colossal. While there is a dispute among experts about how many Iraqis have died as a result of the war, the numbers range from 200,000 to one million, and very likely a mid-range estimate is correct. The Iraqi government reports one million or more war widows. About 3.5 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war, most of them living in difficult circumstances in Jordan and Syria. A new study from the Brookings Institution labels the refugees – many impoverished – as a “looming crisis” for the entire region.

More than half the school-age children in Iraq cannot attend school, due to a lack of security, and 40 percent have no access to safe water. A survey conducted in 2006 by the Ministry of Health found a doubling of mortality, much of it due to violence but about an equal amount to disease and accidents, indicating a gradual collapse of the healthcare system.

Globally, the run-up in oil prices is attributable in part to the war, which not only devastates developing countries but has also contributed to a food crisis worldwide. The war has distracted the United States from other issues, as the recent Russian muscle-flexing in the Caucasus illustrates.

Since the war is not over, no one can predict where all these gruesome figures and trends will end up. But the price everyone has paid for this war so far has been exceptionally high. The actual political results for Iraqis remain doubtful. To a dispassionate observer, this does not look like “victory.”

By Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz

One of the sharpest distinctions between the Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls is their stand on increasing educational benefits for veterans. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton support new legislation that would boost college benefits to levels comparable with the original GI Bill of Rights, enacted more than 60 years ago. They argue that our troops deserve this investment and that the cost – at $3-4 billion annually – is less than the US spends on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in a single week.

The original GI Bill enabled 8 million returning World War II veterans to afford an education. The law was simple and democratic: all troops who had served for at least 90 days and received an honorable discharge were eligible. The benefits paid for tuition, lab fees, books, vocational training, housing and a living stipend. Dependents of servicemen killed in action could also qualify. Historians have written about how the bill “reinvented” America after the war – making it possible to cope with the flood of demobilized young men who would otherwise have been desperately looking for work. The bill had far-reaching implications for the country: the number of people earning college degrees tripled; private elitist colleges and universities were forced to open their doors to minorities, Catholics and Jews, and American higher education became a gateway to the professions for the whole population instead of just a finishing school for the upper classes. In the 11 years following the passage of the bill, the GI bill had produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 25,000 dentists and a multitude of other professionals.

The GI bill also provided a big shot in the arm for the US economy. A study by the congressional Joint Economic Committee in 1988 calculated that the US economy grew by $7 for every $1 invested in veterans’ education. This “multiplier” boosted the economy nationwide: educational institutions all over the country expanded, built new dormitories, classrooms and housing for students. Newly educated GIs bought homes (using GI bill housing loans) which laid the groundwork for turning the US into a home owning society.

Veterans who served in Korea and Vietnam were also entitled to decent educational benefits. But the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today get a very raw deal. The soaring cost of education combined with a watering down of the benefits means that current veterans cannot even cover tuition fees at state colleges, let alone books and general living costs. The maximum education benefit today is supposed to cover 70% of tuition at a state institution. In practice the system has so many obstacles that most veterans cannot even obtain this. Each serviceman or woman has to pay a $1200- $1800 nonrefundable contribution when they join the military. But 30% never use any of the benefits – so the government pockets $230 million from enlistees without providing anything in return. Second, National Guards and Reservists – despite having contributed one-quarter of the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan – are not eligible for many of the benefits. Third, the application process is protracted and bureaucratic: more than 118,000 veterans are waiting for their education claims to be processed by VA.

The bill before Congress would cover full tuition and fees at state universities for those who have served at least 3 years, together with a modest cost-of-living allowance – essentially tripling the level of benefits. The bill would also insert some common-sense changes into the system, including allowing veterans to pay the opt-in fee over 2 years instead of one, and expanding eligibility for Guards and Reservists.

The proposal has attracted widespread bipartisan support. But Senator McCain has joined with the White House and the Pentagon to oppose the bill. Their main objection is that the measure is expensive, and would hurt our ability to retain experienced troops.

This argument – like many of our policies on Iraq — is completely myopic. We know that the number one reason young people sign up for the military is the educational benefits. The military is spending $20 billion this year on recruiting, yet even so it is obliged to accept 12% of new recruits with criminal records and 20% who lack a high school diploma in order to meet its recruiting goals. Boosting educational benefits would do more than any other single measure to increase the quantity and quality of military recruits – which is a prerequisite to retaining them in the long run.

Second, the revised GI Bill would help combat the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression among Iraq veterans. Already some 120,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans have been treated for mental illness including 68,000 suffering from PTSD. One of the best treatments is to offer a way of integrating troops back into society and education benefits are an effective way to achieve this. The $4 billion price tag is low in comparison to the cost of medical care and disability compensation that would otherwise be paid out each year to these veterans.

Third, a new GI bill is exactly the type of measure we need to combat a deepening economic recession. Unlike money spent in Iraq, money spent on veterans’ education benefits goes straight back into the US economy here at home. During the past 20 years, the gap between the earnings of the college educated and those without a high school education has widened substantially. This means that the economic return from providing education benefits will be even bigger than it was sixty years ago.

The money we spend on a new GI bill should be considered a cost of war. But unlike most of what we are spending, this amount will be repaid many times over.

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Linda Bilmes (whose father attended college on the GI Bill) and Joseph Stiglitz (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics) are co-authors of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict”.

New York Times editorial on veterans cites Three Trillion Dollar War

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May 11, 2008
The Suffering of Soldiers

Several years into a pair of wars, the Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to cope with a task for which it was tragically unready: the care of soldiers who left Afghanistan and Iraq with an extra burden of brain injury and psychic anguish. The last thing they need is the toxic blend of secrecy, arrogance and heedlessness that helped to send many of them into harm’s way.

“Shh!” said the e-mail in February from Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health services for V.A., to a colleague. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”
Dr. Katz’s hushed-up figure was nowhere near the number he gave to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last year; he said there had been 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007, and denied there was a suicide epidemic. The veterans affairs secretary, James Peake, apologized for Dr. Katz’s “unfortunate set of words” and promised more candor and transparency.

Give some credit, anyway, to Mr. Peake for realizing that there is no hope of denying or wishing away this problem. As the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes made clear in “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” their analysis of Iraq, the medical toll of a war rises in a swelling curve for many decades after the shooting stops. The current suicide figures include a large proportion of aging and ailing veterans of Vietnam. Suffering for that long, on that scale, will not be covered up.

A study by the Rand Corporation last month found that nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or about 300,000, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. About 19 percent reported having a possible traumatic brain injury from these bomb-afflicted wars.

Alarmingly, only half have sought treatment, the study found, and they have encountered severe delays and shortfalls in getting care. The V.A.’s inspector general has faulted the agency’s case management of brain-injured veterans, and a federal lawsuit by veterans’ groups in San Francisco seeks to force the V.A. to streamline and improve treatment.

Fortunately, the solutions are clear: more money for mental health services, closer tracking of suicides and more aggressive preventive efforts, more efficiency at managing veterans’ treatment and more help for their families. If this country gave back to wounded troops even a fraction of the commitment and service that it has received from them, they will be well cared for.

Why are so many veterans attempting suicide?

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By Lisa Desjardins, CNN Radio

The suicide rate among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is at an all-time high. Some of the possible reasons include the length of deployments (15 months per tour, often extended involuntarily), the lack of safety while in theater (soldiers can be attacked any time, any place — several have been electrocuted in the shower due to faulty electrical wiring by underpaid foreign contractors), and the lack of support for veterans and their families when they return.

You would think that the Department of Veterans Affairs would be shouting from the rooftops: “WE HAVE A CRISIS: PLEASE HELP US FIX IT”. You would think the VA would be desperately recruiting help from Congress and the veterans organization. But instead, the VA is covering up the magnitude of the problem — even refusing to provide the basic statistics to Members of the Veterans committee in Congress unless they file “freedom of information act” request.

This pattern of obfuscation, denial and defensiveness has been the conduct of the VA for several years. Read this article to get a flavor of what’s going on here:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The chairman of the House Veterans Committee blasted the Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday, accusing the agency of criminal failure to respond to evidence of rising suicide rates among former soldiers. Read more here.

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