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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

For the VA and the Pentagon, an Injury isn't an Injury if it's Emotional

Technorati tags: ; ; ; ; ; in the in , doesn't count as an injury

ABC News' blog, The Blotter, reports that the Dept. of Veterans Affairs has mismanaged funds to treat mental illness in veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not allocate all of the hundreds of millions of dollars that was to go to additional mental health initiatives for veterans, nor did it follow how the money it did allocate was being used, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office.

In 2004, the Secretary of the VA approved a new mental health initiative to close the gaps in mental services available for veterans.

"Some of the service gaps identified by the VA were in treating veterans with serious mental illness, female veterans, and veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan," according to the report.


In 2005, the report says, the VA failed to allocate $12 million of the $100 million because, according to the VA, "there was not enough time" to allocate the funds before the end of the fiscal year. The report also adds that some medical centers that received funds were also not able to spend them before the fiscal year ran out.

Somehow, this doesn't surprise me at all. The military has always lacked an appreciation of the seriousness of mental illness. Why would they handle funding for treatment of mental illness well when they don't seem to believe it exists?

According to National Public Radio, "Army studies show that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of the soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental-health problems, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." Yet NPR found that soldiers with PTSD were likely to be punished for their emotional problems, rather than helped.

But an NPR investigation at Colorado's Ft. Carson has found that even those who feel desperate can have trouble getting the help they need. In fact, evidence suggests that officers at Ft. Carson punish soldiers who need help, and even kick them out of the Army.

Soldier Tyler Jennings says that when he came home from Iraq last year, he felt so depressed and desperate that he decided to kill himself. Late one night in the middle of May, his wife was out of town, and he felt more scared than he'd felt in gunfights in Iraq. Jennings says he opened the window, tied a noose around his neck and started drinking vodka, "trying to get drunk enough to either slip or just make that decision."

Five months before, Jennings had gone to the medical center at Ft. Carson, where a staff member typed up his symptoms: "Crying spells... hopelessness... helplessness... worthlessness." Jennings says that when the sergeants who ran his platoon found out he was having a breakdown and taking drugs, they started to haze him. He decided to attempt suicide when they said that they would eject him from the Army.

"You know, there were many times I've told my wife -- in just a state of panic, and just being so upset -- that I really wished I just died over there [in Iraq]," he said. "Cause if you just die over there, everyone writes you off as a hero."

A big part of the problem seems to be at the entry point for care. The NPR report tells us, "...soldiers fill out questionnaires when they return from Iraq that are supposed to warn officials if they might be getting depressed, or suffering from PTSD, or abusing alcohol or drugs. But many soldiers at Ft. Carson say that even though they acknowledged on the questionnaires that they were having disturbing symptoms, nobody at the base followed up to make sure they got appropriate support. A study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, suggests it's a national problem: GAO found that about 80 percent of the soldiers who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for mental health follow-ups. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings."

Not treating people with PTSD harms more than just the soldier. Families, friends, and even communities pay the price. Last month, Editor & Publisher's Greg Mitchell wrote:

Her name doesn't show on any official list of American military deaths in the Iraq war, by hostile or non-hostile fire, who died in that country or in hospitals in Europe or back home in the USA. But Iraq killed her just as certainly.

She is Jeanne "Linda" Michel, a Navy medic. She came home last month to her husband and three kids (ages 11, 5, and 4), delighted to be back in her suburban home of Clifton Park in upstate New York. Michel, 33, would be discharged from the Navy in a few weeks, finishing her five years of duty.

Two weeks after she got home, she shot and killed herself.

Mitchell tells us the story was first reported by Kate Gurnett for the Albany-Times Union.

..."Like thousands of others returning from Iraq, her mental state was fractured," Gurnett explains. "And it went untreated. Within two weeks, Linda Michel would become a private casualty of war. Re-entry into the world of peace can be harder than deployment, experts say. Picking up where you left off doesn't just happen..."

Tom Berger of Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote in 2004:

The Pentagon claims that the Army as a whole had a suicide rate of 12.8 per 100,000 last year, but that the rate among soldiers in Iraq was 15.6-17.3 per 100,000. While there have been 24 confirmed soldier suicides in Iraq since the start of the war, the circumstances of several other deaths still are under investigation. That is why the range of percentages is used. Despite this high suicide rate and a report from the commander of the Army's Landstuhl Germany Medical Center that 10 percent of casualties arriving from Iraq were evacuated with mental health problems, Army mental health experts claim there is "no crisis."


Speaking about those who died in Iraq, President Bush has said, "They did not yearn to be heroes. They yearned to see mom and dad again and to hold their sweethearts and to watch their sons and daughters grow. They wanted the daily miracle of freedom in America, yet they gave all that up and gave life itself for the sake of others." Apparently, those who have died in the Iraq war deserve sympathy and admiration, while those who've survived it don't deserve squat. You got paid, now go home and take up drinking or something. Walk it off.

This war is destroying lives, families, and communities in Iraq and America. The reaction from the worldbuilders who thought invading Iraq would be a great idea seems to be, "Who freakin' cares?" Bush told Wolf Blitzer the violence in Iraq 'will look like just a comma' in history. So how important can the lives of the people surviving it be?


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