Imagine being yanked from your home and family for a year at a time, three, four, or even five times, shipped to a war zone where you never know who might be trying to kill you and having to kill other human beings just to stay alive. You watch friends die, see children maimed, witness suffering all around you.
Then you come home and you’re expected to pick up where you left off.
Of course, the more deployments you have, the more difficult it is to return to a “normal” life.
I know how it was for my contemporaries who served in Vietnam and they only served one tour for the most part. They had nightmares. One vet in his 50s told me he hadn’t slept through the night since he came home. A friend’s brother insisted on sleeping under his bed for months. Any loud noise would set off a panicked reaction.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to endure that four times.
The war in Afghanistan is the longest in our nation’s history, and never have we waged a war with such a small percentage of our young men and women carrying on the fight. They’re coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, traumatic brain injuries, missing limbs … and we’re not caring for them, even though the promise of care was something they were counting on when they signed up to fight.
Now, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has concluded that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ treatment of vets with psychiatric illnesses is so bad it’s unconstitutional.
Two groups, Veterans United for Truth and Veterans for Common Sense, brought the suit against the Veterans’ Administration, charging that veterans returning from war aren’t getting the care they need and are committing suicide at alarming rates as a result.
In fact, more than half of all veterans treated by the VA since 2002 have psychiatric issues — some 330,000 so far, according to Veterans for Common Sense. And there’s plenty more out there waiting, not to mention the fortunate few who have health insurance that will cover what they need.
About one-third of the veterans who commit suicide are under the VA’s care. When they call asking for help, they’re met with wait times that stretch into weeks, and the times are getting longer. They can’t even make a case for expedited care because the VA doesn’t have the capacity to deal with all of them.
But the three judges, one of whom was appointed by Ronald Reagan and the other two by Jimmy Carter, said veterans and their families have a constitutional right to receive care for illnesses and injuries sustained in the course of duty.
Here is what the court concluded:
The United States Constitution confers upon veterans and their surviving relatives a right to the effective provision of mental health care and to the just and timely adjudication of their claims for health care and service-connected death and disability benefits…their entitlements to the provision of health care and to veterans’ benefits are property interests protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The deprivation of those property interests by delaying their provision, without justification and without any procedure to expedite, violates veterans’ constitutional rights. Because neither Congress nor the Executive has corrected the behavior that yields these constitutional violations, the courts must provide the plaintiffs with a remedy.
It’s not going to be cheap to fix this, but we have to try. In fact, men and women are coming home so broken that there’s nothing we can do to heal them, but we can’t let them suffer without trying to ease their pain.
Too many people talk big about supporting our troops, but they don’t want to end the war and they don’t want to pay for proper care. Well, it’s time to pay for what we’ve done.
This is what happens when we try to fight wars on the cheap, with borrowed money, while we cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans and rob the neediest Americans of programs they need to live. Our military people don’t come from wealthy families. Most of them joined for the benefits they were promised — health care, an education, job training, and a chance to defend their country. They can’t afford to pay for the care on their own.
We sent these people out, not just once, but up to five times. We have an obligation to fix what we broke.
Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter, is president of the health care advocacy nonprofit, WNC Health Advocates, founded in memory of her son, who died in 2008 because he couldn't access health care. E-mail her at leslie at lettersfromtheleft dot com or follow her on Twitter @leftyletters1, visit Letters from the Left on Facebook. For more information about WNC Health Advocates or to read Boyd's health care blog, visit wncha.org.