Monday, May 26, 2008


Broken promises to our veterans

by Michael Blecker San Francisco Chronicle

Thousands of Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans are returning home only to become casualties of war - at their own hands. Suffering from psychiatric injuries, 1,000 veterans under Veterans Administration care are attempting suicide each month. Almost 40 percent of the young men and women returning from combat almost have proven mental health injuries that include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression and traumatic brain injury.

But when they seek help, disabled veterans face a claims system so mismanaged and inefficient that they often must wait more than five years for any assistance. The Department of Veterans Affairs is choking on a backlog of some 600,000 unresolved benefits claims. Even after their eligibility has been established, thousands of veterans cannot obtain adequate mental health treatment. While they wait for the care they are owed, veterans are dying. About 126 veterans per week commit suicide. Vast numbers of veterans are living with mental illness, sometimes so severe that they are unable to work. Nationally, about 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and twice that many are homeless at some time during the year.

In a federal court lawsuit tried in San Francisco last month, two veterans' organizations asked Judge Samuel Conti to order the VA to streamline its systems for deciding benefits claims and obtaining mental health treatment. A decision is expected within a month.

During the trial, the VA vowed to do better, but history warns us against taking the VA's promises on faith. For example, a year ago, the VA adopted a Mental Health Plan for Suicide Prevention, which included many well-meant resolutions. But, in practical terms, none of the recommendations in this plan has been implemented, and none of its stated goals has been met. The suicides continue.

The VA's mental health professionals who work directly with veterans are skilled and caring, but the attitude of the VA bureaucracy is apparent from an internal e-mail from the VA's head of mental health, Dr. Ira Katz, that surfaced during the trial. At a time when the VA was publicly reporting only 790 veteran suicide attempts in all of 2007, Katz wrote, "Shh! ... Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month ... Is this something we should (carefully) address ... before someone stumbles on it?" The VA seems to rate "damage control" as more important than caring for veterans who have been injured while serving our country.

Nonprofit organizations, such as Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, try to pick up the pieces of veterans' broken lives, but they cannot possibly meet the overwhelming need. In San Francisco, these nonprofits can provide only a few hundred beds where veterans can receive targeted, residential mental health treatment, while at least 1,200 to 1,500 veterans live on the street, and hundreds more sleep in cars, parks and churches.

We learned from the experience of Vietnam veterans that allowing this situation to persist will lead to epidemics of unemployment and underemployment, homelessness and family breakdown. Sens. Barbara Boxer D-Calif., and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) have introduced the Honoring Our Nation's Obligations To Returning Warriors (HONOR) Act, which would improve efforts to prepare soldiers for the stress of combat, and provide supportive services for families. Please ask your congressional representative to support the Honor Act and to demand that the VA fulfill its mission of caring for our wounded soldiers after they come home.

Some numbers we should not forget

-- The suicide rate of veterans is at least three times the national suicide rate. In 2005, the suicide rate for veterans 18- to 24-years-old was three to four times higher than non-veterans.

-- About 154,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night. One-fourth of the homeless population is veterans.

-- There are more homeless Vietnam veterans than the number of soldiers who were killed during that war.

-- It takes at least 5.5 years, on average, to resolve a benefit claim with the Veteran's Administration.

-- More than 600,000 unresolved claims are backlogged with the Veteran's Administration.

-- Approximately 18.5 percent of service members who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq currently have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression.

-- 19.5 percent of these veterans report experiencing traumatic brain injury.

-- Roughly half of those who need treatment seek it, but only slightly more than half of those who receive treatment receive at least minimally adequate care, according to an April 2008 Rand Report.

Sources: Veterans Administration, U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Rand

Michael Blecker is the executive director of Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, and Vietnam combat infantryman.


Anonymous said...

These figures are terrible!These brave folks should have after care as soon as they step back on American soil! Waiting five years is too late for alot of folks!
Why does the government not employ more pen pushers. They should have more respect for these folks.They are quick enough to send them into battle!They should give them the care they deserve.

"Hey You" 3%,#13,#24th said...

I am a Vietnam veteran and reciveiving 100% for PTSD. I have come up with a program,things that have helped me get through,for dealing with PTSD.It is a d day long to vet to see that these smptoms can be managed and there is hope for those dealing with it.
It was ten years after Nam that I applied for assistance and all them in the system who believe PTSD was non existannt through all kinds of obstcles in my path seeking treatment.I mean there were some nasty ass Dr who derailed my efforts to show the DAV. that this syndrom was active in me .Here I am a veteran who was awarded a combat action ribion and a cross of gallentry being shit on by a system that allows dork Dr.s to make misdiangosises and make them stick.
Well to make a long story short it was twenty years from the time I first put in for a disabity and the time I was awarded the 100% and I was still shorted $40,000
Still this dose not make up for the shitty life I have lead because dreams and feelings of paranoia and dealing with bouts of depression have made me unemployable.I see that not having children of my pown (this may be due to agent orange) was a good thing because they may not have survived I know it has been hard on me and I have Marine Corps training and this allowed me to survive.From being indigent and living in a tent along the Connecicut river in Massachuettes to having enough to eat well every day and keep a roof over my head. I have been up and down that ladder and been on all the rungs of it
The program is a day long workshop with three movies .I think a picture is worth a thound words.They are
The Razors Edge", The Wind Walker. and a Stargate 1 eposode that the teams is made to go over and over agian the most traumatics events of there lives and these dark entities feed of the emotions they give off
Believe me when I say this country although it has its faults is the greatest in the world and our positive future for all of us are with in it.I love this place
I have presented this program to Dr.s with in the DAV but I have not gotten a reasponse .May be cause I am being treated for a metal illness and taking medication my own self.Believe me when I say cannibis dose more for me than any of that niffty shit science has provided us with out those side efgefct that need medications to off set them.
So I am setting up my own healing center and run this pe rogram for vets. They are my people,I am down to looing for funding and it will manifeast

Anonymous said...

Sounds like youv'e been to hell and back!!!!
You shoudv'e had help right from the onset not twenty years later.I know you are one of many, many thousands.
It is great that you have put something together to try to help these vets. But none should be homeless and left to beg on the streets,I saw that myself when I was in America, a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair with a cardboard sign. That man had been to hell and back for his country. He was I guessed in his late fifties.No country should treat it's heros that way!

"Hey You"#5,#13,# 24 said...

Yes I agee but even the homless here are better off in this contry than just about any other country on the face of the earth
When I was living in a tent I felt that I was being indepentant an living with in mymeans.Hey fresh fish in the morning was not bad and after I cook them even
I do love this country so and can not see what there would be to replace it

Anonymous said...

Lots of folks would love to live in America. it is a beautiful country.I guess fish don't come any fresher than straight out tha river in to a pan. :)
I am sure there are alot of Americans that are proud of their great country.

"Hey You" said...

I guess it is better to be shit on by America than say Lapland or PagoPago.Any way all of my basic needs are met so I might as well do what I can for as many as I can for the time I have left here