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Op-Ed - Overlooked cost of the war: veterans' benefits

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by Rep. Jackie Speier

published in the San Franscisco Chronicle on August 15, 2010

Two years after an Army specialist saw half his platoon torn apart in Iraq, he hanged himself in a California backyard. In June, the Army and National Guard recorded 32 suicides, the highest number ever in one month. But his death isn't in any military report, because the specialist was a veteran when he took his life.

The nation needs to recognize that veterans aren't included in direct war expenditures either, including our nation's $700 billion defense budget, which already surpasses that of all other countries combined. While it is fiscally impossible to double this year's defense budget, we are incurring a future war debt of that size with little public debate. I refer to our solemn obligation to provide health care and other benefits to the men and women who have served in the military since 2001.

Eye-opening research by Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz puts the lifetime cost of benefits for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at $663 billion. In fact, a handful of variables could drive these costs up further. When Congress appropriates money for the war, it doesn't include the cost of providing post-military health care and disability payments to the men and women who risk their lives for us. That burden belongs to the Department of Veterans Affairs and its budget, driven by year-to-year needs. I recently voted against the $58 billion supplemental appropriation for the war effort that was approved by the House. These funds will go to war, not to veterans. My vote was in protest of the spiraling costs of the nation's engagement in Afghanistan. Ironically, the additional money for the war is about what the VA will need this year to provide health care to veterans.

I fear we are failing to plan for the future costs and needs of today's military service members. This year the veterans of the six-week Persian Gulf War will receive some $5 billion in disability payments. Our involvement in the region is in its ninth year. I want to be certain that all our veterans will receive the services they deserve this year and 40 years from now.

Going to war isn't easy. Families are stressed, especially when multiple deployments occur. Coming home can be just as hard. The new veterans seeking treatment from the VA have an average of five health issues, according to researchers. For example, VA patients often have a drug addiction coupled, often, with hearing loss, head injuries, sleeping disorders and post-traumatic stress. Multiple medical conditions pose a challenge to VA doctors and staff.

Faster evacuations from the field to hospitals and improved medical equipment are keeping the war wounded alive at a much greater rate than in Vietnam - 90 percent versus 76 percent. But we must look harder and deeper at those who survive. While the VA is charged with providing health care to veterans, I see fraying at the edges and possibly a threat to the entire VA care system. Some VA doctors have informed me that their patient load is as high as 1 doctor for every 3,000 veterans. The VA would like a ratio of 1 doctor for 1,000 veterans, and that is not happening at some clinics. Staffing and resources are problems now and will be bigger problems when the treatment load for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans peaks in 40 years.

A handful of dedicated physicians and professors from UCSF, New York University, Harvard and the VA have taken it upon themselves - no congressional mandates here - to identify the most efficient treatments for traumatic brain injuries, mental illness and other conditions prevalent in those exposed to the horrors and rigors of war. Bilmes and others will testify before Congress on Sept. 30. They also will tell us about the costs of war, not just in dollars but in the lifelong needs of those injured by a roadside bomb or mortar fire.

Congress must listen. Everyone must listen. I've always believed that Veterans Day should be every day, but it won't be if we don't plan ahead.


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