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Saturday, March 15, 2008

As 5th Anniversary Approaches, Iraq War Mistakes a Heavy Burden for Its Veterans

A sobering piece by St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Philip Dine reflects on some of the problems encountered, and later literally shouldered, by the Iraq War's returning veterans. First a summary of the government's missteps, followed by a look ahead:

Three factors are generally viewed as having combined to produce problems in care for U.S. veterans of Iraq:

Strategic mistakes that made the war longer and more lethal, including sending too few troops, not sealing Iraq's borders or arms depots, failing to recognize the insurgency early on and not planning how to secure the peace.

The nature of the war. The lack of front lines made everyone vulnerable at any time, increasing the danger and stress. The insurgents' use of improvised explosive devices has produced devastating injuries. Multiple deployments and the unprecedented use of the National Guard and Reserves increased the risks, especially of stress-related problems.

A lack of preparedness for the volume of casualties, which overwhelmed the system. Additionally, the military missed many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury by relying on soldiers to come forward. Of the 1.7 million service members with recent combat experience, some 800,000 are now veterans entitled to VA health care and benefits. Of those, 300,000 have had treatment; 40 percent were diagnosed with a mental health problem, more than half with PTSD, according to Veterans Affairs figures released as a result of a lawsuit by Veterans for Common Sense, a nonpartisan veterans advocacy group.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


After what many experts describe as a chaotic few years marked by too few resources — though Walter Reed and other institutions have done remarkable work in areas such as prosthetics — the past year or so has seen some progress. Congressional legislation, pressure from veterans advocacy groups, continued efforts by veterans services groups and greater urgency by officials in the VA and Pentagon have moved things along.

Since August, military officials have encouraged soldiers who were near an explosion to get checked for traumatic brain injury, and Illinois and some other states have filled gaps for their own veterans. The transition between the Pentagon and VA is smoother, with record transfers being done electronically, and VA care has been extended for combat veterans.

A handful of key bills passed last year. They include efforts to prevent suicides, give wounded veterans cost-of-living adjustments, unify the disability rating system between the Pentagon and the VA and compel the military to examine personality-disorder discharges.

Much remains to be done to get mental health treatment to rural veterans or provide home care for disabled veterans, [Matthew Cary, president of Veterans & Military Families for Progress] says. More generally, what's needed is a comprehensive approach to treating veterans and families, as well as better funding mechanisms. One idea, he says, would be to sell war bonds to fund care, so the public could help. ... [He] worries that financial concerns could impede the current progress, given the mounting war costs and the looming recession.

More via AP:

How much longer?

Most likely, the war will go on for years, say many commanders and military analysts. In fact, it's possible to consider this just the midpoint. The U.S. combat role in Iraq could have another half decade ahead - or maybe more, depending on the resilience of the insurgency and the U.S. political will to maintain the fight.

Iraq, experts say, is no longer a young war. Nor it is entering an endgame. It may still be in sturdy middle age. "Four years, optimistically" before the Pentagon can begin a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq, predicted Eric Rosenbach, executive director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School, "and more like seven or eight years" until Iraqi forces can handle the bulk of their own security.

What that means depends largely on your vantage point.

For the Pentagon, it's about trying to build up a credible Iraqi security force while struggling to support its own troop levels in a military strained by nonstop warfare since 2001. During a trip through the Persian Gulf last year, Adm. William Fallon, then head of U.S. Central Command, was peppered with as many questions about resources as about strategies moving ahead.

For many Americans, it's about a rising toll - nearly 4,000 U.S. military deaths and more than 60,000 wounded - with no end in sight. Iraqis count their dead and injured in much higher figures - hundreds of thousands at least - and see entire neighborhoods changed by the millions who have fled for safer havens.

For others, it's about an ever-mounting loss of goodwill overseas: "We've squandered our good name," says 29-year-old Ryan Meehan, sitting in a St. Louis coffee shop.

You can also frame the war in terms of the cost to the treasury: $12 billion a month by some estimates, $500 billion all together, and the prospect of hundreds of billions more. But then there's other measures of the war as it enters its sixth year.

These are more difficult to weigh - yet are just as real and profound - and are found in places such as Jim Durham's home in Evansville, Ind. He tries to fight off a sense of dread as he watches his 29-year-old son prepare for his second tour in Iraq with the Indiana National Guard.

Read Durham's story and much, much more.

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