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Op-Ed - A New Kind of Veteran Demands Our Support

Op-Ed

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Written by Representative Karen Lorraine Speier

San Mateo Daily Journal

Concern for our military veterans should never be limited to holidays. In particular, we need an ongoing national dialogue that speaks to the plight of young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I went to Afghanistan a year ago and saw firsthand that the Afghan people hate the Taliban and they want the United States to leave. This isn't a contradictory statement -- it's the realization that 10 years of war is enough -- there's been too much collateral damage.

While I support a withdrawal from Afghanistan, I also want people to understand and appreciate the cost of war. Researchers estimate that $663 billion will be devoted to benefits for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Without any reservations, we have an obligation to support all our veterans. We also need to comprehend, not only the pure costs in terms of dollars, but the price of pain and suffering that goes on long after our troops come home.

These past six months I've been talking to veterans at the Ft. Miley VA Hospital in San Francisco and at the Palo Alto VA hospital. I've also met with veterans at the Veterans Resource Center at San Francisco City College. My staff and I have talked to VA doctors both on and off the record. Here's what we see:

* The signature injury from Iraq and Afghanistan is a compressed vertebrae caused by hauling around 110 pounds of gear for months on end. Much of the weight comes from bulletproof vests and neck guards. The infuriating fact is that only a small percentage of our troops are issued lightweight bullet proof gear known as dragon skin -- most are given heavier, cheaper equipment. We spend billions on gas for military transportation and weapons but limit support for protective gear. That's not right.

* Roadside bombs are a leading cause of traumatic brain injuries. In about 20 percent of the cases, brain trauma will require a lifetime of care. I visited a veteran who was shot through the shoulder blade -- the impact shook his brain and rendered him helpless for months. His eyes were wide-open -- he was staring through me, I thought, when he showed me and his parents that he could take a few steps. I was looking at fear -- it's a look I've known before. But he did move forward and I know he will reclaim his life in the future.

* Many veterans find it difficult to sleep, so they take pain pills, some to the point of addiction. The average veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan has five medical conditions that need treatment upon discharge. Back pain and pill addiction are common along with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

* Thirty percent of injured troops died in World War II; 24 percent in Vietnam and 10 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply put, a large percentage of combat survivors in their 20s and 30s are coming home, often with lethal results. A recent study of California death certificates showed that between 2005-2008 more veterans under 35 died after discharge than died while in combat during that same time period. In fact, 1,000 California veterans under 35 died at home soil, mainly through suicide or risky behavior (motorcycle accidents, drug use, etc.)

There is a common sense way to help more of these young and women straighten out their lives. First, enrollment in the VA is problematic, not automatic. Prior to discharge, a service member undergoes an exit physical exam that, in part, determines the extent of any disabilities. Upon discharge, the veteran has to enroll in the VA and undergo a second exam to determine medical needs. There should only be one exam -- at time of discharge -- and VA enrollment should be automatic.

Furthermore, the exit exam should be done in a way that referrals for mental health would be swift for those leaving the service with diagnosed depression, anxiety and dependency issue. Suicide rates for active duty personnel and veterans are too high.

We need to remember the words of General George Washington who said, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any way, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."

Two-hundred-and-thirty-five years later those words may not be up to sound-bite standards, but their meaning is as critical as ever. As one combat vet told me recently, we want a "hand up," not a "hand out."

Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, represents the 12th District in the U.S. Congress.


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