On New Year's Eve, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq passed 3,000. By Tuesday, the death toll had reached 3,004 -- 31 more than died in the Sep. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
But the number of injured has far outstripped the dead, with the Veterans Administration reporting that more than 150,000 veterans of the Iraq war are receiving disability benefits.
Advances in military technology are keeping the death rate much lower than during the Vietnam War and World War Two, Dr. Col. Vito Imbascini, an urologist and state surgeon with the California Army National Guard, told IPS, but soldiers who survive attacks are often severely disabled for life.
"If you lost an arm or a leg in Vietnam, you were also tremendously injured in your chest and abdomen, which were not protected by the armour plates back then," he said. "Now, your heart and chest and lungs and heart are protected by armour, leaving only your extremities exposed."
Dr. Imbascini just returned from a four-month deployment to Germany, where he treated the worst of the U.S. war wounded. He said that an extremely high number of wounded soldiers are coming home with their arms or legs amputated. Imbascini said he amputated the genitals of one or two men every day.
"I walk into the operating room and the general surgeons are doing their work and there is the body of this Navy SEAL, which is a physical specimen to behold," he told IPS. "And his abdomen is open, they're exploring both intestines. He's missing both legs below the knee, one arm is blown off, he's got incisions on his thighs to relieve the pressure on the parts of the legs that are hopefully gonna survive and there's genital injuries, and you just want to cry."
According to documents obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, 25 percent of veterans of the "global war on terror" have filed disability compensation and pension benefit claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration.
One is a Jul. 20, 2006, document titled "Compensation and Pension Benefit Activity Among Veterans of the Global War on Terrorism," which shows that 152,669 veterans filed disability claims after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of the more than 100,000 claims granted, Veterans Administration records show at least 1,502 veterans have been compensated as 100 percent disabled.
Pentagon studies show that 12 percent of soldiers who have served in Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The group Veterans for America, formerly the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, estimates 70,000 Iraq war veterans have gone to the VA for mental health care.
New guidelines released by the Pentagon released last month allow commanders to redeploy soldiers suffering from traumatic stress disorders.
According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, servicemembers with "a psychiatric disorder in remission, or whose residual symptoms do not impair duty performance" may be considered for duty downrange. It lists post-traumatic stress disorder as a "treatable" problem.
"As a layman and a former soldier I think that's ridiculous," Steve Robinson, the director of Veterans Affairs for Veterans for America, told IPS.
"If I've got a soldier who's on Ambien to go to sleep and Seroquel and Qanapin and all kinds of other psychotropic meds, I don't want them to have a weapon in their hand and to be part of my team because they're a risk to themselves and to others," he said. "But apparently, the military has its own view of how well a soldier can function under those conditions and is gambling that they can be successful."
Robinson said problems with the policy are already starting to arise.
On Christmas, for example, Army Reservist James Dean barricaded himself in his father's home with several weapons and threatened to kill himself. After a 14-hour standoff with authorities, Dean was killed by a police officer after he aimed a gun at another officer, authorities told the Washington Post.
Veterans for America's Robinson told IPS that Dean, who had already served 18 months in Afghanistan, had been diagnosed with PTSD. He had just been informed that his unit would be sent to Iraq on Jan. 14.
"We call that suicide by cop," Robinson said.
After his death, Dean's friends told the Washington Post that the reservist enjoyed hunting and fishing but had lost much of his enthusiasm for life when he found out that he was being deployed to Iraq.
"When Congress comes back in session we're looking forward to accountability hearings," Robinson said. "We want to see veterans helped in the first 100 hours of the new session. We want to see the word 'veteran' somewhere in that first hundred hours."
Robinson says his organisation has also documented the existence of at least 1,000 homeless veterans of the Iraq war.
"We need to get on top of the problem of homelessness," he said. "It's too soon to be seeing homelessness. I want to be seeing a commitment from the Democratic Congress to dealing with the war and the needs of the soldiers in the first hundred hours of them coming to power."
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service