We Have A Situation Here, Mr. President.
What in the world is happening to our sick and wounded from the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq? News articles in recent weeks have revealed multiple incidents where military personnel have been warehoused in holding facilities awaiting treatment or ignored altogether by the DoD and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Here’s the official rhetoric: CBS News reported on June 3 the Pentagon has ordered health screenings for every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman sent into the Iraq war, in an attempt to avoid the delays and denials sick soldiers faced after the first Gulf War.
“We’re prepared this time, whereas in the first Gulf War we really weren’t,” Army doctor Col. Paula K. Underwood told CBS News. Within 30 days of their homecoming, every one is supposed to fill out a detailed health questionnaire, review it with an Army physician, and give a blood sample. “We’re doing it across the board,” Underwood said, “and we’re not waiting for them to come to us. When I stop and think about it, this is unprecedented, really, in military medicine.”
According to CBS News, Army doctors have prepared a clinic at Fort Stewart, Ga., to screen up to 400 soldiers per day once they get home. A gymnasium has also been set up to screen thousands of returning reservists. Army Capt. Paul Jacobson, a physician’s assistant overseeing the screenings, said he would have a staff of 30 ready by mid-June of this year.
Here’s the reality: On Aug 12, The Wall Street Journal reported on Jason Stiffler, a 20-year-old Army veteran who suffered partial paralysis, memory loss, and episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder following an injury sustained in Afghanistan. After returning to his home, Stiffler and his family lived below the poverty line in Bluffton, Ind., while waiting seven months to obtain full VA benefits.
Following the Wall Street Journal story, VA Secretary Anthony Principi appointed a task force to address related issues. Stiffler’s mother, Army Reserve Capt. Arvilla Stiffler, who is director of trauma programs for the University of North Carolina Healthcare system, testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs about the handling of her son’s case. Committee spokesman Peter Dickinson said it would also hear from other witnesses to determine how well the VA and Pentagon coordinate care for such veterans.
On Sept. 6, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that for the past eight months, the VA Department has been denying new applications for medical care to veterans without service-related injuries and whose incomes exceeded $29,576 annually for a family of two. The VA claimed this was part of a cost-cutting effort designed to reduce long waits for routine appointments. VA Department spokesman Jim Benson said there is little likelihood Congress will provide enough money to restore the benefits during the new federal fiscal year.
Consequently, the VA Medical Center in New Orleans has been turning away about 400 veterans each month. Among them is a 90-year-old Metairie resident who served with Gen. George Patton’s Army unit during World War II. His wife asked that neither she nor her husband be identified. “I can afford to pay for his care at a private rest home for about two years,” she said, “but I worry that there won’t be any money left when I need care. I’m 81. My husband and I never asked for anything from the government before. To me, a veteran who served his country is a veteran deserving of medical care, regardless of income.”
On Sept. 8, The Washington Times reported that House Republican leaders are working with White House officials to come up with compromise legislation that would change how disabled veterans receive pensions. Under current law, retirees generally must forfeit a dollar of their military pensions for every dollar they receive from the Veterans Administration. The compromise legislation would allow hundreds of thousands of veterans to collect both retirement and disability benefits compensation.
The underlying problem appears to be that the cost of this compromise would wreak havoc on current and future military budgets. Intense bipartisan pressure from all sides is forcing the issue to a head, over military objections.
On Sept. 12, The European Stars and Stripes reported that troops wounded in combat in the nation’s war on terrorism are being handed a bill with their discharge papers when they leave military hospitals. Enlisted troops are being charged $8.10 daily for food they receive at the hospital, and officers correspondingly more.
“Some things don’t meet the common-sense test, and this is one of them,” said a soldier injured in Iraq in June, who received a meal bill for $24.30 from the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and a second for more than $300 from the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
The law under which these charges are being justified was set in place, according to Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, to prevent troops from double-dipping.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-FL., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a bill to repeal what he calls an “offensive” law. He hopes to tack his proposed legislation to the 2004 Defense spending bill now in conference. It would amend current law to prohibit charging service members hospitalized as a result of injuries sustained while in combat or combat training.
Now, in an Oct. 17 copyrighted story written by Mark Benjamin, UPI reports that “Hundreds of sick and wounded U.S. soldiers including many who served in the Iraq war are languishing in hot cement barracks here while they wait – sometimes for months – to see doctors.”
Benjamin goes on to say that “National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers’ living conditions are so substandard, and the medical care so poor, that many of them believe the Army is trying push them out with reduced benefits for their ailments.”
You can review the full UPI article, “Sick, wounded U.S. troops held in squalor” online.
This problem is especially ironic in light of the system supposedly put into place at Fort Stewart earlier this year, the system that was to have been up and functioning by late June.
Setting up another “Blue Ribbon Committee” won’t do it this time. Convening congressional committee or another task force won’t cut it either. American soldiers, men and women who put their lives on the line, are hurting all over the place for no other reason than bungling bureaucracy.
Like I said, Mr. President, we have a situation here, and you know where the buck stops!
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor