From yesterday's Kansas City Star:
The number of troops back this year from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder could be five times higher than the Department of Veterans Affairs predicted. Instead of 2,900 new cases that it reported in February to a veterans advocate in Congress, the increase could be 15,000 or more, according to the VA. [emphasis mine]
Just as this figure suggests, the article continues with more sobering information for us to examine, digest -- and act on.
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Continuing from the Kansas City Star:
At the Kansas City VA Medical Center, only nine vets from current combat were diagnosed with PTSD in 2004. Last year, it was 58. In just the first three months of fiscal 2006, the hospital saw 72. “It’s absolutely incredible,” said Kathy Lee, at the Missouri Veterans of Foreign Wars.
A former Army nurse in Vietnam who works at the hospital, Lee said, “Every single Iraq vet who comes in, I give them a list and say, ‘How many of these (PTSD) symptoms do you have?’ It’s almost nine out of 10.”
Compared to the Vietnam era, the VA is doing a better job in treating the natural psychological wounds some of our veterans return home with. Yesterday, AP reported:
The VA says it is more prepared to deal with returning veterans than it was after Vietnam, when an estimated 17.5 percent of veterans returned with mental or emotional problems. The agency has more than 160 programs for the treatment of PTSD and a $29 million dollar budget to provide services for military men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "If we don't get intervention within the first five years, the veteran is set up for a lifetime of problems," John Wilson, a psychology professor at Cleveland State University, told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer for story published Sunday.
Wilson helped the VA design its first counseling program in the late 1970s. Now all veterans undergo a required post-deployment screening program, including a mental health assessment.
Although these programs are a step in the right direction, they are far from the magic bullet to cure all reintegration ills.
Despite expanded services and better post-deployment screening, some critics still wonder if the VA is prepared to deal with an influx of veterans coming home after multiple deployments in the Middle East. Larry Scott, who founded a Web site scrutinizing the VA, said that while the system has improved greatly, he worries the VA is still too understaffed and underfunded.
Wilson agreed there is cause for concern since repeated deployments can take an even greater mental toll on soldiers. "Iraq is a nonstop, 24-seven, hostile environment, so what happens is that these guys are incredibly wired all the time," he said. "One of the things we learned from Vietnam is that once that hyper arousal response develops, it doesn't go off."
Back to the Kansas City Star piece, we find a cautionary warning:
John Baugh, who attends a PTSD support group at the Kansas City VA Medical Center, said many soldiers still in combat zones are suffering from the disorder. “They think that the numbers are high right now,” said Baugh, 31, a former driver for an Army construction battalion in Iraq. “Wait until those guys get out and try to start functioning in the civilian world. There’s going to be hell to pay.”
The miscalculation on PTSD echoes last year’s underestimation by the Bush administration of how many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans would need medical treatment. It had underfunded VA health care by $1 billion, despite assurances to Congress that the department had enough money. Congress subsequently added $1.5 billion to the VA’s budget, but money problems still loom.
“They’re going to be short and they’re going to be playing catch-up,” Cathy Wiblemo, deputy director for health care at the American Legion, said of the VA’s PTSD treatment. “They’re not going to have the money, and the waiting list will grow.”
As the VA budget last year needed an infusion of $1.5 billion to meet its needs, many say the President's 2007 VA budget as it currently stands is insufficient to meet the needs of our returning veterans.
The White House asked for $80.6 billion in 2007 for the VA, including $3.2 billion for mental health programs. But Rep. Michael Michaud, a Maine Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA would need more, sooner. “What’s going to happen is unless we give added resources, they’re going to have to start rationing care,” Michaud said. “It’s going to have to start pitting veterans against veterans.”
Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Craig was unhappy over the VA’s botched estimates on health care last year. Congress now requires quarterly budget reports, which Schrade said show that VA’s budgeting appears to be on track. “What concerns us is they’re seeing a lot more patients than they anticipated,” he said.
The VA’s contradictory estimates on PTSD surfaced in February. Prior to a Capitol Hill budget hearing, the agency replied to written questions from Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois, ranking Democrat on the House VA panel.
Asked about the need for mental health services, the VA told Evans that it expected to see 2,900 new cases in fiscal 2006, which began Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30. A week later, the agency issued its latest quarterly report on use of the VA by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The numbers indicated it had diagnosed 4,711 possible cases just from October through December — more in the first three months than it told Evans to expect over the entire fiscal year.
VA spokesman Jim Benson said the estimate of 2,900 cases was based on earlier data. The latest quarterly numbers were still in the draft stage at the time of the hearing, he said, and VA officials stuck with the earlier data because trying to explain “would be more challenging and perhaps more confusing.”
The unnerving news continues:
VA officials also had at the time of the February budget hearing a report from the department’s Special Committee on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It warned that the VA was unable handle services to new combat veterans as well as survivors of past wars, saying: “We can’t do both jobs at once within current resources.” Most of the PTSD cases the VA sees involve veterans from earlier conflicts, primarily Vietnam.
Baugh of Kansas City won’t talk much about his Iraq deployment because it triggers bad memories. But when he returned home in 2004, he couldn’t escape them. “I was jumpy, angry, irritated, sleeping one-two hours a night,” Baugh said. “I was totally worn out. I’d drink and drink and drink just to shut the memories down and the nightmares.” His wife pushed him to get help. Baugh said he’ll “jump through the ceiling” if she drops a frying pan. The clattering of kids skateboarding down his street sounds just like “gunfire in the distance: kack-kack-kack-kack.”
Joshua Lansdale knows about nightmares and noises, too. A 23-year-old veteran from Kansas City, North, he spent 11 months in the Sunni Triangle as a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Army Reserve’s 487th Engineer Detachment. “It was a pretty hot zone,” he said. “We took a lot of mortar fire, IEDs, car bombs, saw a lot of helicopter crashes and worked the UN embassy bombing. I dragged a lot of people out of burning buildings, cars, motorcycle wrecks and explosions.” Back home, Lansdale was diagnosed with PTSD and joined a support group at the VA hospital. He predicted that returning troops would overrun the VA.
“A third of all soldiers are seeking help,” he said. “Do we have the capability of treating all those soldiers? I don’t think we do.”
The better informed we are, the more we can achieve.
As halting as these figures and assessments may be, we mustn't let them paralyze us; rather, we must use this data to energize us and our fight to get our returning troops and their families the support they need. They -- and our nation -- deserve nothing less.