Recent surveys have painted an appalling picture. Almost half a million of the nation’s 24 million veterans were homeless at some point during 2006, and while only a few hundred from Iraq or Afghanistan have turned up homeless so far, aid groups are bracing themselves for a tsunamilike upsurge in coming years.
Tens of thousands of reservists and National Guard troops, whose jobs were supposedly protected while they were at war, were denied prompt re-employment upon their return or else lost seniority, pay and other benefits. Some 1.8 million veterans were unable to get care in veterans’ facilities in 2004 and lacked health insurance to pay for care elsewhere. Meanwhile, veterans seeking disability payments faced huge backlogs and inordinate delays in getting claims and appeals processed.
The biggest stain this year was the scandalous neglect of outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and a sluggish response to the needs of wounded soldiers at veterans clinics and hospitals. Much of this neglect stemmed from the Bush administration’s failure to plan for a long war with mounting casualties and over-long tours of duty to compensate for a shortage of troops.
Thus far, more than 4,000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, many more than died in the almost-bloodless Persian Gulf war, but only a fraction of the body counts in Vietnam (58,000) or Korea (36,000). A higher percentage of wounded soldiers are surviving the current conflicts with grievous injuries, their lives saved by body armor, advances in battlefield medicine and prompt evacuation. A study issued last week estimated that the long-term costs of their medical care and disability benefits could exceed the amount spent so far in prosecuting the war in Iraq.