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Support Our Veterans

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In one of the great ironies of American politics, it's Democrats-John Murtha, Nancy Pelosi, and Ike Skelton-who demand that the Bush Administration provide our troops with training and equipment before they go into battle and guarantee adequate veterans' services when they return. Given that Republicans have carefully sought to build up support among military families, it comes as a shock that the White House has not kept its commitments to veterans.

On November 17, 2005, Congressman Murtha denounced the occupation of Iraq. He stated: "our military is suffering." Murtha spoke of visiting wounded troops at Bethesda and Walter Reed medical centers and reported that our armed forces were not receiving proper care when they returned to the United States.

To date there have been more than 3100 US military deaths in Iraq and more than 32,000 of our troops have been wounded. (There have been at least 56,000 Iraqi casualties although some counts are much higher.) In January 2006, Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated that the final cost of the Iraq war would range from $750 to $1269 Billion. Of this amount, costs associated with veterans' injuries and payments ranged from $91 to $214 Billion.

In December, after visiting wounded veterans at Walter Reed hospital, President Bush remarked : "We owe them all we can give them -- not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service." Regrettably, the actions of the Administration belie Bush's words. The Veterans Administration is swamped by the needs of their constituents: next year, they expect to treat 263,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans three times what they projected. Many of the Iraq veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the VA is unable to provide the necessary mental health services. A recent report indicated: "Veterans have fewer visits with mental health professionals, on average, than they did before. Between 1995 and the first half of fiscal 2006, for example, general psychiatry visits for those in the mental health system dropped, according to VA data." Nonetheless, President Bush's most recent budget "assumes cuts to funding for veterans' health care two years from now."

February 18th, the Washington Post reported that the Iraq War transformed Walter Reed Army Medical Center into" a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients." The article depicted harrowing conditions at the hospital: confused, disabled veterans who do not received proper treatment because they are left to wander around the huge campus on their own.

While there are multiple reasons for the deterioration of veteran's facilities, two stand out: wounds-many caused by deadly roadside bombs, "improvised explosive devices"-are more severe for Iraq casualties and many return severe psychological problems. According to a CBS News report "Thirty-five percent of Iraq veterans received mental health care during their first year home." Another article reported "an assessment of more than 220,000 military personnel returning from Iraq published in the April Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly one in five has significant mental health problems. Repeated tours of duty increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder by 50 percent." DOD estimates that between 15 and 29 percent of Iraq veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Given the scope of these problems, why hasn't the White House and DOD acknowledged the extent of the difficulties being experienced by America's veterans? Part of the answer undoubtedly stems from the Administration's reluctance to admit that the war has not been going well: the White House has prohibited pictures of coffins returning from Iraq and told the Department of Veteran's Affairs to not give out names of the wounded. Of course, this is an Administration that tried to get by with a "lean and mean" invasion and occupation: they didn't send enough troops to begin with and consistently argued-via Donald Rumsfeld-that America could get away with doing everything "on the cheap;" as a result, every aspect of the operation has been under funded-except for corporate outsourcing. Finally, George Bush is a stalwart conservative: he doesn't believe in psychological counseling and feels most forms of social services foster "a culture of victimization." His unspoken advice to most of our returning injured is "suck it up, soldier."

As a result of these outrages, America's active and retired military personnel are turning to Democrats for support. On February 21st, Democratic Senators Obama and McCaskill cosponsored legislation "to improve the lives of recovering veterans at Walter Reed" medical center. While only a first step, it's an indication that Democrats intent to ensure that our veterans are supported.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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