<\body> Stories in America: Veterans Suffer in Lonely Silence

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Veterans Suffer in Lonely Silence

Support the Troops. Give Them Healthcare and Desperately Needed Counseling.

This column is by William Collins:
You might expect that veterans, especially afflicted ones, would be the most honored and best cared for members of society. They sacrificed while many citizens merely applauded.

Well, forget it.

Though the feds have spent millions of dollars and the press has devoted thousands of inches to the new Air Force Memorial in Washington, D.C., neither shows similar concern for our needy ex-combatants. Indeed the fundamental policy of the military toward its wounded is to get them out of the service as fast as possible.

As soldiers, they're entitled to the best rehabilitative care and maintenance, all from the Pentagon budget. As vets, they get shifted over to the Veterans Administration (VA) budget, a much more haphazard affair.

Connecticut offers a telling example. After heavy lobbying, the VA finally sprang for $25 million for a new 125-bed nursing home in Rocky Hill. The state is putting up an additional $8.7 million and you can be sure it's really needed. The facility being replaced was built before World War II, with precious few improvements since. For instance, it has no central air conditioning or piped oxygen.

One serious problem is that Rocky Hill is state-owned, so it is subject to state budgetary whims as well as federal ones. A two-time loser. And now with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are more wounded than ever. Fortunately modern techniques have kept them alive to return to their next health battlefield. But in that war with bureaucracy, they must fight alone.

Part of the problem is the system. Long ago the feds decided to keep costs down by setting up their own hospital and care structure, rather than paying local hospitals to treat vets. It was a mixed blessing, though doubtless it saves a lot of bucks. Many sufferers of persistent wounds lavish praise on the VA for its sensitive treatment. These folks tend to live near one of its hospitals.

Inconvenient, poorly staffed

Others curse it for its inconvenient locations and for the endless hurdles that strew the path of qualifying for care. In addition, thousands of other vets, physically sound, stew over the new mental disorders they have brought home from the front. The VA is not staffed to handle this flood of PTSD or other maladies, and there is little enthusiasm to increase its budget to catch up.

Murkier still is the Gulf War Syndrome mess. Countless vets from Gulf I and II have developed grievous symptoms that their advocates attribute to poison gas, depleted uranium, oil well fires, and other toxic airborne chemicals. Research has proven ambiguous, with the government plainly not interested in exposing itself to further expensive claims.

The contrast between this reception and that of 9/11 victims is striking. Politically, it is useful for the White House to play up the losses from the New York tragedy. Hence surviving spouses there receive over $1 million on average in compensation. But surviving military spouses get only $12,000. Likewise the press is full of reports on the hazards of toxic air to the heroic rescue and clean-up workers. But the hazards of toxic air to our soldiers in Iraq are pooh-poohed.

This is at least partly because we perceive ourselves as victims of the one event, perpetrators of the other.

Politics causes other indignities for our heroes too. Large numbers of dead and wounded GIs regularly return to our shores, but the press is barred from photographing them. Their heroism must await recognition from the local newspaper back home. Plainly the proponents of the war fear the depiction of body bags, coffins, or maimed service men and women. (Those who return as vegetables are never even mentioned.) Casualties must be as invisible as possible, lest they become a rallying cry for anti-war forces. That's what doomed the war in Vietnam.

Thus are our troubled veterans again consigned to the shadows of society to suffer in lonely silence.


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