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War machine smoke: Nearly half new US vets seek disability benefits

Published time: May 28, 2012 18:16
Edited time: May 29, 2012 04:10
Andrew Pike, a veteran of the US Army 82nd Airborne who was shot and paralyzed during the Iraq war (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / AFP)

Andrew Pike, a veteran of the US Army 82nd Airborne who was shot and paralyzed during the Iraq war (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images / AFP)

More US soldiers than ever are surviving oversees deployments, but the injuries sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq mean 45 per cent of the new vets are seeking disability benefits. In the long run the compensation may cost Americans up to $1 trillion.

­The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced some 1.6 million veterans – 720,000 of them (45 per cent) are now seeking service-related compensation. Each one of them claims an average of eight to nine ailments.

By comparison, only 21 per cent of Gulf War veterans who were deployed to battlefields in the early 1990s claimed disability, while the average Vietnam veteran receives compensation for fewer than four ailments. 

­Out of 720,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets currently seeking VA care:
- over 400,000 have mental health problems, most commonly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- over 350,000 report tinnitus
- over 177,000 have hearing loss
- over 1,600 have lost a limb
- over 200 need face transplants
- at least 127 have been blinded
Statistics by the Associated Press

The staggering increase in figures is driven by many factors. A major one is a higher survival rate, as modern body armor and improved battlefield care protect from wounds that in past wars proved fatal. Over 95 per cent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have lived.

On the other hand, this means new veterans return with unprecedented injuries, some missing as many as three limbs. Tens of thousands suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) – mostly mild concussions from bomb blasts – and doctors cannot say what’s in store for them in the long term.

Many have back, shoulder and knee problems from carrying heavy packs and wearing the body armor that helped keep them alive.

‘Is your back worse?’ – ‘No, I’ve lost my job’

The weak economy also pushes veterans to the Department of the Veteran Affairs (VA). The officers meet more people with disabilities that do not prevent them from doing certain jobs – but for the fact the veterans cannot find any work, or have been fired.

Barry Jesinoski, executive director of advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, says that he often hears the same story in his office when veterans come: "We'll say, 'Is your back worse?' and they'll say, 'No, I just lost my job.'"

VA payments range from $127 a month for a 10 per cent disability to $2,769 for a full one. But as the piles of claims build up, the speed at which they are processed drops. For each case, it must be proved that the disability is indeed service-related.

As a result, nowadays a frustrated, injured veteran might spend up to eight months without any income. Over 560,000 claims from veterans of all wars are currently backlogged, having been filed earlier than 125 days ago.

Projected veteran expenses dangerously exceed budget

Recent veterans are seeking a level of help the government did not anticipate, and for which there is no special fund set aside to pay. Nevertheless, the VA, scrambling through thousands of outstanding claims, still wants the veterans “to have what their entitlement is."

­Cost of War

America’s War on Terror, which ensued after 9/11, includes Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq; and Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), covering domestic security. Various contesting reports have been filed on the costs of these operations, citing many hidden expenses. According to a study by Brown University, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have cost the US up to $4 trillion, while a total of 236,000 have been killed, over 6,000 American soldiers are among them.

But for taxpayers the ordeal is just beginning, warns Harvard economist Linda Bilmes. With any war, the cost of caring for veterans rises for several decades and peaks 30 to 40 years later, when diseases of aging are more common, the economist told the Associated Press. She estimates the health care and disability costs of the recent wars at $600-900 billion.

"This is a huge number and there's no money set aside," says Bilmes. "Unless we take steps now into some kind of fund that will grow over time, it's very plausible many people will feel we can't afford these benefits we overpromised."

This year’s budget puts aside some $130 billion for veterans' benefits and services, with the VA Department's share set at up to $70 billion. At the same time, the DoD’s budget runs close to $700 billion – this includes wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tendency is to reduce costs, but who could promise cuts discussed for 2013 would only affect the defense? And how would this play to US veterans, who all volunteered and now expect the government to keep its end of the bargain?

"The deal was, if you get wounded, we're going to supply this level of support," says Bilmes. Right now, "there's a lot of sympathy and a lot of people want to help. But memories are short and times change."

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