Lost in the hoopla concerning the financial markets and volcanoes and their economic impacts is a truly sad and disturbing story. It is a story about heroes and people who have made the most important sacrifices for our freedom. These are the veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Some of those veterans have completed three or four tours of combat. This is especially true in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. In Vietnam, two tours were the norm and three and four tours were rare exceptions involving people with critically needed skills. I did two tours in Vietnam, but a third was not allowed.
But the story today is about how these people are being cared for AFTER their service. The disturbing math is obvious from the following stories that have been posted lately. I think the most important facts just aren’t adding up.
For example, one story talks about the fact that of 100,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, 31% of them are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and a slightly larger number from the residuals of head injuries. That is about 31,000 veterans. However the second story is telling a more disturbing story that 22,000 of these soldiers are imprisoned for “personality disorders (PD)” and only released from confinement if they sign a PD discharge which then denies them of care or benefits. If I do my math right that means 22% of the people who have served often multiple tours and in the illustrated case 12 years of service are imprisoned and subjected to ridicule and psychological abuse until they acquiesce and sign PD discharges. You be the judge of the facts.
This from the Chicago Tribune:
Corey Gibson’s right leg bounces when he sits. At 29 he sleeps fitfully, with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle mounted above his bed. “That’s my sense of security,” he says. Laurie Emmer, a 47-year-old mother of four, shuns crowds and strangers. She always sits facing the restaurant door when she goes out to eat and, before sitting down, makes sure to identify the quickest route out. And Eric Johnson, 62, who revisits Vietnam nearly every night in his head, escapes the demons who rob him of sleep by patrolling the streets of his South Side neighborhood with his yellow Labrador retriever, Che.
The veterans come from different generations and different wars, yet they share a common and increasingly costly wartime affliction — post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of psychological damage. Last year, mental illnesses accounted for 35 percent of the $22 billion spent on disability payments to veterans who served in the Vietnam, Persian Gulf and “global war on terror” eras, according to a Tribune analysis.
Compensating veterans with psychological scars has helped fuel a 76 percent surge in service-related disability costs since 2003, the Tribune found, burdening an already overwhelmed system and underscoring the reality that the biggest costs of war are not often immediate or visible. Studies suggest costs will continue to soar. The percentage of military evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan that were attributed to mental disorders has increased sharply in the last four years, a recent Defense Department study shows. Another survey of about 100,000 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans found that 31 percent had been diagnosed with mental health or psychosocial problems. “When you look at the epidemic of PTSD, you see the future,” said Harvard University‘s Linda Bilmes, co-author of the 2008 book “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”
The Tribune’s analysis of claim records from the Department of Veterans Affairs found that vets’ psychological wounds are by far the most expensive type of disability. Compensating wartime veterans since Vietnam for PTSD and other mental conditions is four to five times costlier than the average for all disability categories, the Tribune found. Victims of PTSD also are more likely to suffer other serious and costly health problems than other disabled veterans. In short, they are sicker.
Gibson, Emmer and Johnson represent veterans at different stages of an evolving psychological struggle.
Johnson is a reminder that psychological damage can consume an adult life — in his case, 40 years. Johnson left South Vietnam in 1970, returning to Chicago after a year of tracking and killing the enemy in the jungle. He says he was ill-prepared for an abrupt transition to civilian life.
“I felt stripped naked without a gun,” said the burly, dreadlocked Johnson, who after his return would wear twin shoulder holsters carrying .45 automatics. When Johnson showered, he always took a gun, sealed in a plastic bag. He slept with a gun under his pillow. His first wife, Cookie, knew not to shake him awake or touch his feet. For years he couldn’t acknowledge he had a problem, but in 1979, Johnson was diagnosed with PTSD.
The VA spent an estimated $5.6 billion last year compensating Vietnam veterans like Johnson for mental disorders, according to the Tribune analysis. That’s $4 of every $10 paid to disabled veterans from that war. Johnson also reflects the reality that compensation payments to Vietnam veterans with psychological damage are, on average, 134 percent higher than payments to other disabled Vietnam vets. Johnson receives compensation for diabetes, high blood pressure, an intestinal disorder and a back injury sustained during a helicopter crash in Vietnam, in addition to PTSD.
PTSD has changed Johnson, a guarded man who is slow to trust strangers and rarely socializes. He ignores holidays and birthdays (including his own) and avoids family functions. The night terrors of Vietnam have receded but not gone away. Johnson still returns to Vietnam nearly every night. Johnson’s second wife, Erma, has learned to recognize and deal with the enemy he’s chasing in his dreams. “She’ll wake me up and say, ‘Don’t go — I got him,'” he said. A retired postal worker who worked through his injuries, Johnson said he does not drink or take drugs, beyond pain relievers for his back and legs and medications to treat his diabetes. “Mentally, I’m a survivor,” he said with a smile. “I’m more fortunate than the average veteran because I’ve figured a few things out.”
Gibson is today where Johnson was in 1970. Volatile and solitary, Gibson tallies his losses after his tour of duty in Iraq — his fiancée; three jobs from which he was fired; an active, engaging life that seems forever lost.
Gibson is part of a generation of younger vets whose problems are only starting to emerge. Last year, veterans of the war-on-terror era received $329 million in disability payments related to mental disorders, or 34 percent of the money paid to all disabled vets from the same era. A paramedic from Terre Haute, Ind., Gibson signed up in 1999 for a five-year stint with the Army’s 555th Forward Surgical Team, whose job was to penetrate deep into the battlefield and provide emergency treatment for wounded soldiers advancing to the front. He entered Iraq in March 2003.
Gibson chooses not to dwell on what happened in Iraq, other than brief mentions of mortar attacks, taking prisoners and being blown from a truck during an attack on the way to Baghdad. When he returned home in 2004, “My fiancée knew right away. ‘You’ve changed, you’re different,’ she kept saying,” he said. There were night terrors and flashbacks. He became hypersensitive to perceived slights. “It doesn’t help that I’m a male nurse,” he said.
Gibson sleeps little and spends a lot of time alone, walking the neighborhood with his dog, Gibby. One night, while his fiancée slept with her head resting on his chest, Gibson had a terrible nightmare and curled his body, putting her in a powerful headlock. She pounded on his chest to wake him up. Soon after, she left him, Gibson said.
He has been diagnosed with PTSD but also complains of other troubles, such as dizziness, a loss of long-term memory and back pain, which he says stems from his being thrown from the truck. After returning in 2004, he often slept less than an hour a night until he bought and mounted the rifle above his bed. “My sleep went from 45 minutes a night to about two hours,” he said. He calls the gun “an extension of my arm.” Gibson, who receives compensation for PTSD, recently filed a claim with the VA for traumatic brain injury. He spends most of his time at home, on his computer or watching videos. The shades are drawn.
Emmer, a retired Army sergeant, is among about a quarter-million women who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. But the number that speaks to Emmer’s life-changing experiences is $50 million, the amount spent last year by the VA to compensate all female veterans from the war-on-terror era for psychological damage, according to the Tribune’s analysis.
A medic in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Emmer waited 20 years to get an overseas combat assignment. Within a couple months of arriving in Afghanistan, her career as a skilled medic began to unravel. Emmer reported being raped by a coalition officer in Kandahar Province in spring 2003. In a separate incident, she injured her head falling off a military vehicle.
Today, the combination of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, or TBI, has enveloped Emmer in a light fog marked by physical imbalance, disorientation, anxiety and a round-the-clock headache. As a result of her injuries, Emmer is at a higher risk of stroke and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The ultimate costs of her maladies are unknown.
A pleasant woman with a boyish smile, Emmer appears on her front porch nearly every morning to plant the American flag and reappears to remove it at sundown. There is little physical evidence to suggest she is a severely wounded veteran. But these days, when Emmer leaves the house, she writes down where she is going and why for fear that she’ll forget.
“Unless you lose a limb, I don’t think other injuries resonate with the public,” Emmer said in the living room of her Civil War-era home in rural Sycamore. “Relatives wonder if we’re just making this stuff up, to get free money.” She still longs to jump out of airplanes, which she did about 60 times during her 23-year military career with the 82nd. But that won’t happen. Emmer said she wants to go back to college and get a degree in history, so she can be a substitute teacher. But her doctor has advised against it, saying college might be too stressful. Emmer, who has two children enlisted in the military, is determined to regain much of her old self. She finds support in other veterans “on the roller coaster” who are working toward the same goal. “They want the old normal back,” she said. firstname.lastname@example.org
Caring for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses is costing the federal government billions of dollars a year, and will continue to do so for years to come. According to an analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs’ records by the Chicago Tribune, the VA spent $5.6 billion last year to treat mental disabilities. While these costs included treating veterans from previous wars, such as Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, the ballooning expenses have been driven largely by soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One military survey of about 100,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars showed that 31% had been diagnosed with mental health or psychosocial problems. But the following story casts a very disturbing light on things and how our military is dealing with this overwhelming situation.
By Sherwood Ross – BLN Contributing Writer
An army sergeant who had received 22 honors including a Combat Action Badge prior to being wounded in Iraq by a mortar shell was told he was faking his medical symptoms and subjected to abusive treatment until he agreed to a “personality disorder”(PD) discharge.
After a doctor with the First Cavalry division wrote he was out for “secondary gain,” Chuck Luther was imprisoned in a six- by eight-foot isolation chamber, ridiculed by the guards, denied regular meals and showers and kept awake by perpetual lights and blasting heavy metal music—abuses similar to the punishments inflicted on terrorist suspects by the CIA.
“They told me I wasn’t a real soldier, that I was a piece of crap. All I wanted was to be treated for my injuries,” 12-year veteran Luther told reporter Joshua Kors of “The Nation” magazine (April 26th). “Now suddenly I’m not a soldier. I’m a prisoner, by my own people. I felt like a caged animal in that room. That’s when I started to lose it.” The article is called “Disposable Soldiers: How the Pentagon is Cheating Wounded Vets.”
Luther had been seven months into his deployment at Camp Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad, when a mortal shell exploded at the base of his guard tower that knocked him down, slamming his head into the concrete. “I remember laying there in a daze, looking around, trying to figure out where I was at,” he said. Luther suffered permanent hearing loss in his right ear, tinnitus, agonizing headaches behind his right eye, severe nosebleeds, and shoulder pain.
The sergeant took a Chapter 5-13 PD discharge in order to escape his confinement, becoming one of 22,600 soldiers so separated since 2001, a discharge that relieves the Pentagon of the responsibility and cost of long-term care for the wounded. An Army major told Luther to sign the discharge papers or “you’re going to be here a lot longer.” Luther recalled, “They had me broke down. At that point, I just wanted to get home.” Many of the PD discharge recipients are soldiers who have served two and three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, author Kors writes.
Sgt. Angel Sandoval, who served under Luther, said Luther’s insistence on his wearing ceramic plates strapped to his bulletproof vest saved his life and described Luther as “one of the greatest leaders I had.” Yet this is the man the Army imprisoned when he requested medical treatment. “This should have been resolved during the Bush administration. And it should have been stopped now by the Obama administration,” Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, is quoted as saying about PD discharges. “The fact that it hasn’t is a national disgrace.”
Luther’s case is no isolated example, writes Kors, noting that in the past three years “The Nation” has uncovered more than two dozen such cases. “All the soldiers were examined, deemed physically and psychologically fit, then welcomed into the military. All performed honorably before being wounded during service…Yet after seeking treatment for their wounds, each soldier was diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder, then discharged and denied benefits,” Kors writes.
This past December, he reports, VA doctors found Luther to be suffering from migraine headaches, vision problems, dizziness, nausea, difficulty hearing, numbness, anxiety and irritability—and diagnosed him with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, declaring the veteran 80 percent disabled. The diagnosis cleared the way for the sergeant to receive disability benefits and lifetime medical care.
With his health improving, Luther has vowed to fight the military on behalf of other soldiers who got a raw deal like himself. He founded Disposable Warriors, a one-soldier operation near Fort Hood, Texas, that assists soldiers fighting their discharge and those appealing their disability rating, Kors reports. Luther says the base had 12 suicides last year as of June 2nd but reported only two. Luther is quoted in a November 21, 2009, article on “Truthout” as saying there is only one mental health professional for every 1,263 soldiers “and that is the first failure.”
After opening Disposable Warriors, Luther found a threatening note on his car windshield that read: “Back off or you and your family will pay!!” Whoever wrote that note doesn’t know Chuck Luther very well.
We cannot and must not forget these brave men and women who have sacrificed themselves for us. I personally did a lot of healing when I saw how much more respect our country and its people showed to the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember the yellow ribbons and the bumper stickers. Somehow these shows of support healed my experiences of returning to SF and getting off the plane to experience people spitting on me. I was once again proud of being a medic and a soldier and my service.
However, the reality of what is going on now within our military concerning these individuals cannot and should not be tolerated by any of us. We should all be outraged by these actions. If you know any of these people or their families, support them. Get involved. Write your CONgress members and let them know there should not be a SINGLE soldier confined for PD. NOT A SINGLE ONE! PD is a medical condition and should be treated as such. This is a cost management exercise and damn the costs. If we can spend trillions bailing out fat cat banksters, we can certainly spend billions taking care of those brave individuals who fight for our peace and security.