Throughout the course of the Iraq war, the Bush administration has made it abundantly clear that the welfare of veterans — while worthy of a few carefully placed words and rounds of applause during the State of the Union address — is simply too much trouble to bother with.
First came the White House’s realization in 2004 that the families of deceased Iraq veterans were entitled to a measly $12,000 when their loved one returned home in a casket. Sure, said the administration when Congress demanded an increase, if you guys really think so.
Last year’s discovery of thousands of Iraq war veterans languishing in the Walter Reed Medical Center exposed the administration’s army and veteran commanders as negligent to the point of cruelty.
While Congress tends to eventually respond to these issues, an ongoing problem yet to be addressed is the Department of Veteran Affairs’ mismanagement of mental health services for soldiers. The problem has been demonstrated by the 2006 discovery that Veteran Affairs had “forgotten” to dole out tens of millions of dollars in mental health services two years in a row, as well as recent revelations that the department is not even aware how many of its members commit suicide.
So it makes sense that it is up to Congress to make up for the shortcomings of the administration once again, this week with the introduction of the Veterans Suicide Study Act.
The bill is being introduced in the Senate by our own Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the man who made many-an-idealist teary-eyed with his staunch opposition to the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and all of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify torture.
The bill, if passed, will require the Department of Veterans Affairs to keep track of veteran suicides and report its findings within six months to Congress.
The legislation strikes at the heart of what has increasingly become one of the most tragic side effects of modern warfare. Many soldiers in Iraq have benefited from the advances in modern medicine and have in many instances avoided what would have been mortal wounds in Vietnam or Korea. However, thousands still come home to a tortured existence of psychological trauma caused either by brain damage sustained from injury or shock or simply by the horror and tragedy witnessed abroad.
To gain some perspective on the gravity of the situation among former servicemen and women, one need only look at the statistics on Vietnam veterans. Estimates consistently show that since the war’s end in 1973, between 100,000 and 200,000 of the roughly nine million men on active service duty during the war have taken their own lives since being discharged. According to the BBC, the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Vietnam veterans; a study done by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health showed that Americans who had served in the military between 1917 and 1994 were more than twice as likely as nonveterans to commit suicide.
All this coincides with a troubling study released by the RAND Corporation this month, which shows that nearly one-fifth of the 1.6 million men and women deployed to Iraq report “symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.” However, only 53 percent reported seeking any type of treatment.
All this suggests a large portion of our veterans are trying to re-enter society while carrying an enormous psychological burden — something perhaps unavoidable but certainly treatable.
Unfortunately though, Veteran Affairs has no basis for understanding how many of these veterans are at risk of suicide because it has never kept track of the numbers. In fact, at this point Veteran Affairs only keeps track of suicides that take place in its facilities, hence the huge margins of error for estimates relating to Vietnam vets.
The Feingold bill is a crucial first step in understanding and assessing the threat of depression to American veterans and their families. Hopefully what will follow is a drastic increase in spending on mental health for veterans and current active duty members. The RAND Corporation estimated that two years of adequate mental health care for Iraq war veterans would cost $6.2 billion — a hefty sum indeed, but a pittance in comparison to far less worthy military expenditures.
Furthermore, as Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, described to the International Herald Tribune, the choice is between investing in health care now or “jail cells, cemeteries and drug and alcohol treatment programs later.”
Most importantly, however, this bill will allow Americans to better understand the human toll this war, as well as any other, has taken in communities all over the country. Perhaps if Americans understand that the casualties of wars are felt not in a span of a few short years, but rather over a span of several generations, they will be more skeptical about politicians who claim to invade countries “to save American lives.”
Jack Craver (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore majoring in history.