The Army tacked a five-month extension on Sgt. Ryan Christian Major’s term of military service in 2006, and that November, just five days after his original discharge date, Ryan was critically injured when an underground bomb exploded during a foot patrol in Ramadi, Iraq.
Ryan was evacuated from Iraq and brought to a hospital in Germany, where he underwent extensive surgery. His pelvis had been broken, and doctors amputated both of his legs above the knees. He suffered from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and would go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For two months after the explosion, Ryan’s family was unsure of he would survive. He did.
For many Americans, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is startling: more than $1 trillion has been spent on the conflicts. At least 5,670 service members have been killed, and 91,384 have been wounded in conflict or evacuated from the war zone for treatment of wounds or illnesses.
But for soldiers like Ryan and their families, the true costs of war cannot be summed up with numbers printed on a page. They have paid a price higher than most Americans can imagine, and now veterans’ advocates say Congress and the government is in no way prepared to compensate them for their effort and sacrifice.
Some advocates even say that Bush-era policies were specifically designed to prevent veterans from receiving medical benefits, forcing soldiers like Ryan to seek alternatives.
Congress learned about Ryan’s sacrifices on September 30 when his mother, Lorrie Knight-Major, told his story to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She was happy to announce her son couldn’t make the hearing because of college classes, and in recent years he had moved back home and completed two marathons on his hand-crank bicycle.
But Knight-Major was not there to thank Congress for its support of her son’s recovery. She was there to tell Congress that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had fallen short of providing adequate care for a soldier who had given up so much to serve his country.
“Our journey has been fraught with various obstacles that serve as barriers to access to quality care. Navigating the complex maze of treatment options and benefits is a job in and of itself,” said Knight-Major, who reported going into debt while tracking down benefits for her son. “But, we remain determined that Ryan receives the quality care that he was promised when he enlisted to serve in the United States Army should he become injured.”
Knight-Major said that many crucial components of her son’s recovery came from nonprofit groups and not from the government and country he signed up to defend. The group Rebuilding Together renovated their house to make it wheelchair accessible so Ryan could return home. The Independence Fund provided an advanced wheelchair. Paws for Liberty donated Theodore, a highly trained therapy dog that helps Ryan navigate crowded areas and mitigate PTSD symptoms.
“This support should have been provided by the government,” Knight-Major said in her testimony. “It is because of the nonprofits that have provided Ryan with the resources for him to live at home with his family, take charge of his own care, and allow him to feel safe and sleep at night.”
Iraq veteran Corey Gibson of Indiana testified alongside Knight-Major. He said he has struggled for years to get treatment for PTSD and other ailments he has been diagnosed with after serving as a medic. He has since become a volunteer advocate, helping other veterans navigate the VA.
Gibson told Truthout that 95 percent of veterans do not know about benefits they are eligible for or how to obtain them, and all too often VA doesn’t offer help, leaving homeless veterans and those in need of psychiatric care at “the bottom of the barrel.”
Gibson said the VA is understaffed and makes the process for applying for benefits complicated so it takes longer to provide them, and the longer that takes, the less the VA has to pay out in the long run.
“A lot of people call the VA the ‘Veterans’ Adversary,'” Gibson said.
He brought a similar complaint to Congress.
“Within the VA system, an individual veteran’s appeal for benefits can take up to five years,” Gibson said in his testimony. “A re-evaluation after a rating has already been established comes every three years. Why is it that it seems the system is more proactive in taking things away from veterans than reaching those in need?”
According to some veterans’ advocates, Gibson’s questions should fall in the lap of the Bush administration, which started two wars without a plan to pay for them. Congress went right along for the ride, consistently voting to provide for war but not for the soldiers coming home from the battlefield.
As of March 2010, the government reported that 565,000 new veteran patients had been treated in VA hospitals since 2001. Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), a national advocacy group that tracks the VA, estimates that by now that number has increased to 619,000, and will eventually reach one million by 2014.
“The significant post-deployment statistics about our veterans must be contrasted with events during 2002, when the [Bush] administration had no casualty estimate, no plan to monitor or estimate fatal or non-fatal casualties, no plan for caring for non-fatal casualties, and no dedicated long-term funding for non-fatal casualties,” said VCS Executive Director Paul Sullivan in his testimony to the Congressional veterans committee.
Sullivan told Truthout that the Bush administration did more than simply fail to provide for the soldiers it sent overseas.
“Not only was there a failure to prepare, the Bush administration made a deliberate effort to conceal information about the human and financial costs of the war, and the administration was maliciously working to block veterans from receiving psychiatric benefits,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that several Bush-era policies, including an order that singled out PTSD claims by requiring that two doctors authorize a diagnosis, made it much harder for veterans to get benefits.
Pressure from groups like the VCS and reforms made by the Obama administration have since lead to important changes, including new rules making it easier for veterans to receive treatment benefits for PTSD. But Sullivan said that it could take months if not years for these reforms to make a difference at the VA, and meanwhile veterans must continue to wait.
Meanwhile, the VCS called on Congress to rein in how the government monitors its soldiers post-deployment and keep in mind that, according to VCS estimates, the total cost of treating veterans of the War on Terror could reach $1 trillion.
The VCS called on Congress to create a trust fund for soldiers when they are recruited that would cover medical bills, so that future veterans do not return home to a VA system plagued with budget shortfalls.
Sullivan also warned against conservatives and Tea Party candidates who would – ironically – attempt to deregulate the VA and privatize health care for veterans. He said it is crucial that legislators like Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the VA budget, do not lose their seats in Congress.
A recent Associated Press report showed Edwards, a Democratic incumbent from the conservative Texas district, trailing behind self-described “small government conservative” Bill Flores.
Flores has responded to claims that he and other conservative candidates would privatize the VA with a statement claiming he only wants to give veterans the option to have the government pay for treatment from private doctors.
The debate over the best way to care for our nation’s veterans will continue to rage, but as the Defense Department and the VA continues to fall short of its promise to provide for its wounded and traumatized service members, it is becoming painfully clear who is paying the highest price for the true cost of war.
The Army recently reported that 1,713 soldiers attempted suicide during fiscal year 2009. A total of 239 succeeded in suicide, 146 died as a result of high-risk behavior and 74 died of drug overdose.
For Gibson, who treated wounded soldiers in the battlefield and now volunteers his time to make sure they get the treatment they deserve, numbers like these are unacceptable, and he’s fighting to hold those in power accountable.
“You all trained me how to fight, how not to turn in the face of an enemy, and how to watch out for the better interest of my brothers and sisters in arms,” Gibson told the House Veterans Committee. “Regardless of my daily struggles with PTSD, TBI, and other diagnosis, don’t think that the training I received calls for me to stop fighting now.”