In June 2008, the Democratic-led Congress approved a special funding bill that would provide $163 billion to continue the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan well into 2009. Liberal representatives who had railed against the war lined up to sign on to the bill that was supposedly necessary to adequately “support our troops” so they can “do their job.” Time and again, the “well-being” of soldiers, sailors and airmen has been used to justify and prolong U.S. wars of aggression against the people of the world.
When military personnel come home wounded or injured, or when they leave the military, they find the “support our troops” rhetoric means very little. All the media stories of returning troops reuniting with their families evaporate when the reality of reintegrating into society sets in. A study by Physicians for Social Responsibility indicates long-term public health costs and disability benefits for returning troops will ultimately be much greater than the cost of conducting the war itself.
The burden of having served
Of the 1.5 million people who have served in the military in Afghanistan and Iraq, over one-third of them have been deployed multiple times, thus increasing the possibility of wounds and battlefield trauma. A recent study by the Rand Corporation estimated that there were about 300,000 soldiers who have returned with post-traumatic stress disorder and another 300,000 with traumatic brain injury. This represents an astounding 40 percent of returning troops. There is no way that the Department of Veterans Affairs can deal with these numbers considering the scarcity of trained mental health professionals amongst their ranks. There is currently a backlog of 800,000 cases from all recent wars at Veteran Administration facilities, and the number is growing.
There are around 1.8 million veterans—plus around 4 million immediate family members of veterans—who have no health care coverage at all. In November 2008, the federal government finally linked the illnesses of close to 200,000 Gulf War (1990-91) veterans to their time in Iraq. A congressional study showed that exposure to toxic pesticides and the ingestion of other chemicals, supposedly designed to protect soldiers, led to neurological and physical deterioration among many veterans. The study did not cover the effects of depleted uranium or anthrax vaccines, which have been shown to have their own gruesome and debilitating effects.
What is a veteran returning from war and waiting for medical attention to do? Many are unable to work, experience problematic home lives, and turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. As the wait continues for adequate care and employment, huge numbers become homeless. On any given night, there are 200,000 homeless veterans, and another 400,000 will experience homelessness sometime during the course of a year. The suicide rate among veterans is at least three times the national average. At present, there are 126 veterans who take their own lives every week.
Many who join the military are motivated by the promise of opportunity and job training. Over 50 percent of the people in the military come from cities and towns with under 25,000 people. These are often places that once relied on industries that have been long since outsourced in the corporate drive to find cheaper labor and greater profit elsewhere. These towns lack jobs when the soldier returns, just as when he or she first enlisted. A 2007 Abt Associates study found that 18 percent of returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan were unemployed, while one of four who did find jobs earned less than $22,000 a year. Many recently discharged veterans have taken advantage of the GI Bill to go to school, but there is little evidence that those education benefits have yielded higher paying jobs.
In the richest country in the world, there is no reason returning soldiers, or anyone else, should be denied comprehensive care. Clearly the funds are there; the U.S. government continues to spend $500 million a day for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bring the troops home—with benefits
We call for all the troops to be brought home and provided with health care for as long as they need it—without any red tape. We call for free education and extensive job training. Housing should be guaranteed with no threat of foreclosure or eviction. There should be social workers provided to help address the specific needs of each returning veteran so that they are not left to fend for themselves.
President Obama pledged to increase veteran’s benefits in his February 27 speech at Camp Lejeune. That is a welcome development and partly a result of the growing scandal of inadequate support for returning war veterans. It is also designed to placate active-duty service members who are being sent in larger numbers to fight an escalating war in Afghanistan that will lead to many new casualties.
The fact is veterans will not receive the benefits they deserve unless they fight for them. As the economy continues to sink, and trillions of taxpayer dollars are dished out to Wall Street, we need to take a stand and demand: Bail out veterans, not the banks.