Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bush's War On American Soldiers 

From Ronald Glasser's article in the July Harper's (only available in print), A War Of Disabilities:
"Some 12,500 American G.I.s have been wounded in Iraq. Eight soldiers have been wounded for every one killed, about double the rate for Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. The percentage of soldiers who have undergone amputations is about twice that of any of our past military conflicts; nearly a quarter of all the wounded suffer from traumatic head injuries, far more than in our other recent wars...The true legacy of this war will be seen not in the memorials to those lost forever but in the cabinets of files in the neurosurgical and orthopedic wards at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the backlog of cases at Veterans Affairs."
Advances in combat medicine and protective armor mean more and more soldiers avoid lethal injuries and are kept alive at the site and the field hospital, while the nature of the conflicts and weapons being used lend to particularly scattered impacts. Ceramic plates inside Kevlar have been a resounding success:
"This body armor protects the chest, back, and upper abdomen, preventing damage to the torso and allowing many soldiers to survive other serious injuries."
But the trade-off is a questionable blessing:
"Saving more soldiers also means higher numbers of amputees and of those blinded and brain-damaged."
Our soldiers have never fought a war like this. As Glasser notes, almost 70% of injuries have been caused by roadside IEDs. Unlike in previous wars, where soldiers were usually attacked and hit from the front or above, this particular kind of combat means they are often hit while riding in vehicles ("...that are not as well armored as their own chests"), and struck from below, beside, or behind:
"Nearly half of all U.S. troops wounded in Iraq since the fall of Saddam have been hit in the lower extremities; 25% have been injured in the hand or arm...Body armor protects a soldier's 'center mass', but the explosions shatter and shred arms and legs."
The high number of soldiers who have lost upper extremities means a high number of expensive prostheses (much more expensive than those for lower extremities) Simply being close to blast sites when IEDs go off can result in internal brain damage--the victims remain functional for the most part, but suffer significant lifelong disability. The number of soldiers with brain injuries, including those life-changing concussions that are often under-diagnosed and are "notorious for their delayed onset", is extremely high. And aside from the destructive effects these injuries will have on the returning vets, their families and their communities, there is a staggering cost to be paid economically:
"The three types of upper-extremity prostheses offered by the military range in price from $5000 to $100,000; patients are given one of each, in order to use them in different situations, In the past two years, there ahve been numerous multiple amputees who have need double and triple prostheses.
Traumatic brain injuries will also create long-term economic problems...
Right now the majority of casualties, including amputees, are kept within the Dept. of Defense's military-hospital system--embedding the costs in a mammoth military budget of some $600 billion annually...
But the wounded stay within the DOD health-care system only as long as they remain on active duty. Every wounded soldier will soon become a veteran and will...be forced to receive any ongoing care through Veterans Affairs. There is little to suggest that the VA--an overburdened and underfunded system--can handle the wounded from Iraq once they are released from Department of Defense care."
The VA is one the place in the DOD that, for all his overheated rhetoric, Bush has failed to adequately fund, in part thanks to his appointee, VA head James Nicholson, who failed to ask for money he knew the agency needed. In fact, the treatment of returning injured soldiers has been one of the great shameful chapters of the horror novel that has been the Bush administration. Most interesting, Democrats in Congress saw the shortfalls coming this past spring and tried to get additional funding included, which Bush and the Republicans both refused to pass. Now we have this:
"The average wait for a VA decision on an initial claim for disability benefits is 165 days; to rule on an appeal of one of its decisions, the VA takes, on average, 3 years. (...some 13,700 veterans have dies as they were waiting for their cases to be resolved.) In Minneapolis the waiting period for an orthopedic appointment at a VA hospital can be more than six months, and patients there have been told to expect a further decrease in services over the next budget period...Hundreds of billions have been given to the Pentagon to pay for this war; to pay for the war's aftermath, VA discretionary funding for 2006 is to be increased by only one-third of 1%."
He ends with a statement from Max Cleland, former head of the VA under Carter, and himself a triple amputee Vietnam vet:
"The VA can't handle what they have to do now; how are they going to handle the flood of physical and emotional casualties, many of whom will be the responsibility of the VA for the rest of their lives?" (Emphasis mine.)
In conjunction with the extensive cuts Bush has made in social programs and medical care, can anyone say the local communities will be able to pick up the crucial care being lost to the crippled VA?

UPDATE: For more info on the plight of returning servicepeople and what you can do to ease it, go here and explore the links.

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