Veterans care will be challenge for Obama

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Nov. 11, 2008 at 9:22 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- One of the biggest challenges the nascent Obama administration will face in the medium term is the fate of the ballooning numbers of U.S. combat veterans. The ability of the new president to keep his promises to these American heroes will be a litmus test of both his integrity and his technocratic skills, because providing the services they have been promised will require both fighting political battles and overcoming management inefficiency.

Concern about the way the nation's fighting men and women have been treated when they return has been fueled by award-winning reporting like The Washington Post's investigation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or United Press International's'expose of conditions for sick and wounded U.S. soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Attention has also focused on the hidden wounds of traumatic brain injury and mental health issues like posttraumatic stress disorder. A study earlier this year by the RAND Corporation, a think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military, estimated that nearly one-in-five of military personnel who had served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from mental health problems, including PTSD -- a total of 300,000.

Advocates say the relentless pace of deployments has added to a mental health epidemic among those who have served in combat. Veterans for America says that Department of Defense studies show troops are 60 percent more likely to develop post-combat mental health problems with each deployment.

"The system of care designed to treat post-combat mental health injuries, the most common wounds of our current wars, is inadequate to the task and will be for the foreseeable future," the group says in a recent report. "The only step that can ease this burden is more time out of the fight to rest, re-train and recuperate."

President-elect Obama "has been a leader on these issues" of the needs of and services for the 1.7 million men and woman who have served in combat in the Bush administration's war on terrorism, according to Jason Forrester, the group's director of policy.

Currently, just over half of those military personnel suffering from mental health problems have sought help, the RAND study found, adding that the reasons given for not doing so included concerns about the side effects of medication and fears that seeking care might damage their military career.

And those who do seek help often face long delays in getting benefits approved, according to a series of lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fixing the machinery that keeps America's promises to its veterans will be a real challenge for the incoming administration. "There is a diversity of needs which is unprecedented for the military," said Forrester.

Nonetheless, among veterans' advocates, expectations are running high for the medium term.

"We fully expect that we will be in a much better place on these issues in two or three years' time than we are now," said Forrester.

Many returning veterans, of course, face more mundane problems, like finding work and housing in a deteriorating economy, and the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Bush this year, was designed to provide a new generation of veterans returning from his long war with educational benefits to help them in the job market.

Beginning in August next year, the American Forces Press Service reported, the new law will govern payment and reimbursement plans for veterans and serving service-members who seek to further their education.

The new plan will be open to almost anyone who served on active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, including those ineligible under previous benefits legislation.

It will cover tuition costs for service-members going back to school up to the cost "of a state-supported bachelor's degree program,`" according to the press service, with the tuition being paid directly to the college.

The new plan also provides a housing allowance for full-time students at the rate equivalent to that of a staff sergeant with dependents, and provides small stipends for books and supplies.

But the costs of this and any improvements to the healthcare system will have to fight for room in a U.S. budgeting process suddenly beset with other, more immediate problems.

Obama has committed to expanding the size of the U.S. military, but the pressures on the nation's troops are growing so fast that some believe it could call into question the viability of the volunteer-only force.

"This is not just a veterans' issue," said Forrester. "Half of these people are still serving in the military," and 60 percent have spouses and/or dependents. "This is a tremendous challenge for the Department of Defense as well as (the U.S. Department of) Veterans Affairs."

"The pressure is on the readiness and capability of the existing force as well," said Forrester, noting that Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had publicly fretted that the stress caused by the long-running deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan could undermine the viability of a volunteer-only force.

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