By Nick Winnie
This particular tragedy has become all too common and too rarely discussed.
A young veteran of the Iraq war returns home safely from what may be his or her first, second or third tour of duty with many invisible scars.
The soldier has or will soon develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having survived Iraq’s militias and roadside bombs, slowly falling victim to a broken mind. After several desperate months spent at home receiving little or no psychiatric help, the decorated soldier takes their own life on American soil.
Nearly five years into the Iraq war, veterans are suffering from PTSD to a degree that hasn’t been seen in decades and are committing suicide in numbers entirely unprecedented in American history.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at VA hospitals after returning from duty. Of those, 128,000 have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, 68,000 with PTSD specifically. Considering the stigma that keeps many soldiers from seeking help, and the hesitance of military personnel and the VA to diagnose the illness, these staggering mental health numbers are probably very conservative estimates.
The two disturbing, intertwined trends of growing PTSD and veteran suicide have everything to do with the negligence and short-sightedness of an administration and military which continue to deploy thousands of soldiers for repeated tours of duty in Iraq and promptly kick them to the curb as soon as they take off the uniform.
The VA, a cabinet-level government agency in charge of caring for returned soldiers, is failing to fulfill its promise to the War on Terror’s many walking wounded. The VA has a backlog of over 600,000 veteran disability claims and a long waiting list for veterans in need of psychiatric care.
Iraq’s veterans have continually tried to bring their neglect into the focus of the national media and the halls of the Capitol building, and they are slowly gaining ground.
Two veterans’ advocacy groups have sued the Bush administration, claiming that the VA has failed to adequately provide services for the growing number of vets with PTSD.
In hearings that began this past Monday, lawyers representing Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth asked a federal judge to order the overhaul of the VA’s entire health system, its mental health services in particular.
America’s leading authority on PTSD went before the court Tuesday and testified that 30 percent of troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to be diagnosed with PTSD and that the VA is not doing enough to treat them.
The veterans won a significant victory in court Tuesday when the VA officially shifted its stance on the five years of free health care for vets mandated by the “Dignity to Wounded Warriors Act”. It is no small feat that these two veteran groups, in the course of two days in a courtroom, made the VA change its tune from calling the mandatory free service “discretionary” to an “entitlement” for all returning veterans.
This individual victory should do more than provide hope for veterans’ advocates intent on immediate goals of increasing the VA budget for psychiatric care, providing immediate screening and treatment of all potentially suicidal veterans, and increasing support services for the families whose children and spouses return from war.
It should inspire everyone — especially those of us young enough to be fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — to demand better for our veterans and push veterans’ issues to the center of our political discourse. No matter how divided this country is about the future course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must all agree that American soldiers should not be dying young at home.