Over the years Sen. Bernard Sanders has been a consistent defender of the interests of military veterans, and on Memorial Day he appeared at a variety of parades and ceremonies where he asked Vermonters to remember those who have served their country.
Rep. Peter Welch was in Vermont this week promoting a program to help veterans launch new businesses. He hopes to expand a program run by the Vermont Small Business Development Center into a national program, offering guidance to returning veterans.
The focus on the interests of veterans is not just a crowd-pleasing gesture by our political leaders. The population of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is considerable and the burdens they bear are significant. A recent story by The Associated Press described the toll these wars have taken.
Since the wars began more than 1.6 service men and women have left active duty and become veterans. Fifty-four percent of them are getting health care from the VA; following World War II and the Vietnam War, the number was 40 percent, which means that the Department of Veterans Affairs is facing extraordinary burdens.
Improvements in body army and battlefield care mean that many more service men and women survive injuries that in previous conflicts would have killed them. One consequence is that veterans are facing an array of medical problems stemming from their service.
Traumatic brain injury has affected tens of thousands of veterans, and the military is only gradually recognizing the scope of the problem. These injuries derive from the prevalence of roadside bombs and other explosives.
Further, mental health problems have mushroomed among veterans. The AP reported that more than half of the veterans seeking care from the VA have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder has afflicted 217,000 veterans. Pioneering reporting by NPR previously documented the resistance of the military to recognizing the pervasiveness of PTSD among service personnel. Now that the military is accepting the reality of the problem, it faces an enormous health care challenge.
The widespread nature of the injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to an enormous caseload of disabilities among veterans. Forty-five percent of the returning veterans have filed for disabilities, which is double the rate from previous wars. The huge number of cases means that claims have been backlogged more than four months for about 60 percent of claims.
The huge backlog of cases and the continuing burdens on the VA health care system suggest the government was not ready for what it had asked our service men and women to undertake. The nation has a moral obligation to respond to the injuries suffered by military personnel and to help ease the way back into civilian life when they return. That the government was not prepared to fulfill its obligations is an additional indictment of the lackadaisical way the wars were launched 11 and nine years ago. We are familiar with the way the government botched the wars. It is now important to prevent it from botching the peace by neglecting the veterans who served.
In that sense Sanders, Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy have a noble cause in holding the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to account. If austerity-minded Republicans in Congress intend to gut veterans programs, our three-man congressional delegation needs to resist. A backlog of disability cases does not come from having too many people in government; it comes from having too few.
The terrible toll of these wars is also a reminder of what war means and ought to caution us against any new conflict entered into with a cavalier disregard for the price to be paid. Our young men and women will do what we ask of them and will come home with the scars that are the consequence. That places the burden on policymakers not to put them in harm’s way unless absolutely necessary.
This week of Memorial Day there are many things to remember about war and the toll it takes and the obligation not to exact that toll without a good reason.
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