Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. The barbecue grills have cooled, as have the hangovers. It’s back to work for America. But for many of the 1.3 million veterans who have disability claims pending with the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs, Memorial Day was just another eight hours that federal employees didn’t spend asking whether the federal government should pay to treat the physical and psychological damage they incurred while fighting the country’s wars.
Two weeks ago, Reps. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, did more than hang out a few sheets of red, white and blue bunting. They convened a meeting at the War Memorial Veterans Building in which hundreds of veterans turned out to meet with Veterans Affairs caseworkers, discuss their cases in detail, and complain about how slowly department officials have processed their claims for medical treatment and the paltry financial compensation offered by the federal government.
It’s hard to take issue with their complaints. Some 34,000 veterans have filed for medical treatment or financial help at the Oakland office alone, only to wait an average of 320 days — almost a year — before their claims are reviewed and an initial recommendation is issued. This is just the beginning of the process, which can include appeals that drag some cases out for years. As a crowd of veterans shouted their grievances, Speier tried to calm them down: “You have our pledge here today — we will fix the Oakland VA.”
But it’s also hard to dismiss the Veterans Affairs representatives’ explanations. The number of ailments attributed to the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange has been expanded to include heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia, contributing to the backlog of cases. But the overwhelming factor is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created an army of walking wounded among us. According to the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, roughly 1.25 million veterans are expected to file disability claims this year alone.
Clearly, the problem is money — and whether we, as a nation, value the health of the veterans who have fought our wars and returned, expecting us to take care of them. Since the Iraq War began in 2003, the Veterans Affairs budget has more than doubled to $140 billion in fiscal year 2013. But as we begin to see the full effects of modern warfare, we must begin to realize that we cannot pinch pennies when it comes to our veterans.
There was a time, in wars past, when we didn’t realize the full panoply of damage that war can do to our troops. We offered them the GI Bill, treated the most severely damaged and preferred not to think about the other effects war has on veterans, including the mental scars.
Now, we have a much fuller understanding of the psychological and long-term damage that war can exact. If we are going to undertake wars of choice such as Iraq, we must provide for the soldiers who come back alive, but not entirely whole.
Even in this age of austerity, Congress must provide more money to take care of our veterans. Meetings like the one organized by Speier and Lee are a start, but true change must also include breaking up gridlock in Washington, D.C., which may be a war of its own.