Failing the Troops

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Failing the Troops

by
Marie Cocco

No lights at the end of the tunnel. No corners turned. Give Gen. David Petraeus points for using well-understood clichés to express the obvious: We are bogged down in Iraq, the general in charge there has now testified on Capitol Hill.

Most of us had long assumed this was so, and have become ever more certain of it as the Democrats elected to Congress in 2006 to force a change of course have been stymied in trying to budge President Bush. There are consequences of stumbling along until sometime after Jan. 20, 2009. More lives will be lost, more billions spent. More thousands of injured airlifted to the safety of a military hospital and then dropped into the stultifying bureaucracy that is supposed to ensure that they get care and compensation for their disabilities, but doesn't.

It has been more than a year since The Washington Post reported on nightmarish conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and recounted the scandalous treatment of severely wounded veterans who spent months trying to get their disabilities properly recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs, then often months more battling claim rejections that leave the vets and their families struggling financially, emotionally and, of course, physically.

This wasn't one of those revelations that made headlines for a day or two and then faded. Oh, no. There were hearings in Congress-too many to count. And commissions. And the usual vows to do better. This week, the Post won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for its Walter Reed exposé.

The government's response earns no such accolades.

Despite a new law called the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have suffered significant physical injuries or, increasingly, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health ailments, still must navigate a bureaucratic maze that requires weeks or months for approval of their disability claims. They wait alongside about 400,000 of their fellow veterans with backlogged cases. The average waiting time, according to government data compiled by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is about six months.

The act, says Linda Bilmes of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is supposed to bring improvement, but all it did was take measures to smooth the bureaucratic glitches the wounded must navigate when they leave the military's medical system and try to enter the veterans' health system. " ... Fundamentally, the problem is that veterans-soldiers when they get back-should be automatically enrolled in the VA and automatically enrolled for benefits."

Another part of the Wounded Warriors Act is now entangled in a lawsuit in which the group Veterans for Common Sense argues that a judge must force the VA to provide timely care and do so for the full five years required under the legislation-a time frame that Paul Sullivan, the veterans group's director, charges the Bush administration opposes. "The system is broken," he says.

It is broken as the Iraq war itself is broken, an epic of false assumptions, incompetence, corruption and the hubris of a president who refuses to admit his blunders. The public is justified in throwing up its collective hands, resigned to wait until what now seems uncontrollable and unfixable is delivered to a new president's desk.

Not so the care of veterans. There are no inscrutable, ancient sects that we must placate; no warring political factions whose motives we do not understand. There are no disputed borders, or outside agitators or regional suspicions to be soothed.

"There are some aspects of the Iraq conflict that are intractable, but this is fixable," Bilmes says. "We can control how we pay for the war." Her book "The Three Trillion Dollar War," co-written by Joseph Stiglitz, illuminates the many hidden costs-one of which is the long-term care of disabled veterans-that get little public notice. "We can control how we take care of our veterans," Bilmes says.

Still, after all the heartbreaking stories that have aired on television or played out in our own neighborhoods, our response has been mostly to shake our heads at the system, not change it. This test is now before us, and will be for as long as the wars continue, the wounded return home and the veterans age with what we are obligated to give them: dignity.

--Marie Cocco

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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