Bush repays Purple Hearts with red tape nightmare


Mark Follman
October 4, 2004 11:34PM (UTC)

As President Bush acknowledged 11 times during last Thursday's presidential debate, the U.S. war effort in Iraq is "hard work." Perilous might have been a better way to say it: From the start of the war through August, more than 13,800 U.S. Army personnel alone have been wounded or become sick and have been evacuated from Iraq, according to military watchdog Global Security.org That doesn't include the number of soldiers injured during a combat-heavy September, nor does it include the number of U.S. Marines wounded in the fierce fighting in Fallujah and elsewhere throughout the war. (The Marine Corps keeps a much tighter lid on casualty figures than the Army.)

But while the Bush administration has put hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in harm's way in Iraq, it is cutting funding for the already beleaguered support services for U.S. veterans damaged in war zones.

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From the Washington Post:

"The disability benefits and health care systems that provide services for about 5 million American veterans have been overloaded for decades and have a current backlog of more than 300,000 claims. And because they were mobilized to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 150,000 National Guard and reservist veterans had become eligible for health care and benefits as of Aug. 1. That number is rising. At the same time, President Bush's budget for 2005 calls for cutting the Department of Veterans Affairs staff that handles benefits claims, and some veterans report long waits for benefits and confusing claims decisions.

"'I love the military; that was my life. But I don't believe they're taking care of me now,' said Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook, 35, of Lawton, Okla. Paralyzed in a mortar attack near Baghdad in April, he has received no disability benefits because his paperwork is missing. He is supporting his wife and three children on his regular military pay of $2,800 a month as he awaits a ruling on whether he will receive $6,500 a month from the VA for his disability."

Through the end of April 2004 -- the most recent accounting the VA could provide, according to the Post -- nearly 10, 000 claims by U.S. veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for service-related disabilities have yet to be processed. During fighting in Sadr City in April, Westbrook was hit by mortar shrapnel, severing his spine; he is now paralyzed from the chest down, has limited movement in his right arm and battles constant infections. Though he praised the way the Army has treated him since his injury, including providing excellent medical care, he told the Post that he's struggled to make it on his regular pay since he returned to the U.S. on July 14.

"'They're supposed to expedite the process, and they have not done that,' he said, adding that officers in his Army unit have been trying in vain to help. Charities have been set up in his honor to help defray costs. 'It's very draining, because I don't know what to do, and my family is asking when we'll get the money,' he said. 'It's the hardest part about this whole thing.'"

The administration is facing a nightmare budget deficit nurtured on its watch -- but is cutting funding for veterans' programs during a war with no end in sight really the way the Bush team wants to deal with the fiscal quagmire? (Would it qualify as "hard work" to divert some of the president's tax cuts favoring the wealthy to VA funding?)

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Meanwhile, there is another troubling way in which the plight of vets makes Iraq look increasingly like Vietnam redux: Post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health concerns are expected to become a "dominant issue," VA Secretary Anthony J. Principi told the Post. Added David Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans: "The system is already strained, and it's going to get strained even worse. It's not a rosy picture at all, and they can't possibly hope to say they're going to provide timely benefits to the new folks if they can't provide timely care to the people already in the system."


Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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