War on Iraq  
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Off the Front Lines and Forgotten

Iraq War veterans return home with excruciating mental and physical ailments -- and the treatment they are able to receive is shoddy at best.
 
 
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Twenty-five-year-old Michael Thomas, a member of the Navy since December 2002, was on the ship that fired the first tomahawks on Baghdad in March 2003.

He was discharged for psychological problems three months later.

When I met Thomas at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he was still visibly shaken by the experience. On his "bad days," he locks himself in his room. "I usually don't talk to anyone. I usually cry and get depressed. No one sees it because I isolate myself."

Like tens of thousands of veterans, when Thomas returned to the states, he attended a class about federal benefits. "They send you to a three-hour course and give you a book. If you don't ask questions, you won't get the answers," he says. "I'm still trying to get my claim. I filed it in December. If it wasn't for my cousin, I wouldn't know what to do."

Michael's cousin Dennis Hammons was a member of the Marine Corps from June 1993 to August 1997. Hammons, 30, was discharged in 1996 after he experienced a parachute malfunction and fell 500 feet at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Hammons suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has knee, back and neck injuries.

"I'm one of the people that falls through the cracks. I was in during Clinton's police actions," he says. "I was all over Liberia and Rwanda. I got stabbed and there's no record of it. I'm not eligible for benefits because it didn't happen during a conflict. They wrap a lot of that stuff under humanitarian awards. As soon as I got hurt, I was treated like a piece of crap."

Hammons says the claim he filed with the VA took 14 months to process; it took another four months to get into the VA medical system. "My experience with the VA has been horrible. I go to a private doctor for pain meds. If I need to see a doctor here [at the VA], it takes three to four months to get an appointment," he says. "I took my son down a slide, which wasn't real smart, and I couldn't walk. I had pain shooting down my arm and leg. That happened in April. I got in the second week of July. That's how it is here."

Robert Piaro, a Vietnam veteran who serves as the volunteer president of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, a non-profit organization of veterans helping veterans, says he's seeing Iraq veterans with intense cases of posttraumatic stress syndrome who have no idea what's available when they return.

"These guys are so frustrated," he says. "I understand the bureaucracies; I understand budget problems, but man if you're gonna send young men and women to war, you've got to take care of them."

The CVAF receives 95 percent of its funding through grants. "If the American public actually knew of the deficiencies in VA healthcare, they would be outraged," says David Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a 1.2 million-member group that represents disabled veterans. "It's really changed to become an us against them-type mentality on Capitol Hill. Right now the Republicans have the majority and they flex their muscle whenever they have a chance. It doesn't do the country any good and doesn't do the vets any good."

In April, Republican senators, including Rick Santorum, R-Pa., John McCain, R-Ariz. and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., voted to defeat a Democratic effort to add $2 billion to the 2005 VA healthcare budget. The only Republican who voted in favor of the bill was Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

"Democrats are the ones supporting the troops. Republicans aren't supporting us," says Bill Huber, Disabled American Veterans Hospital Coordinator in Muskogee, Oklahoma and Korean Veteran. "I'm 71 years old and I've been around a while. The problem is, veterans don't protest. We take what we get. I'm the president of our DAV chapter and I tell my people to write to their congressmen. They just sit back and let our lobbyists do it. They can't do it by themselves; we have to help them."

Huber's group provides transportation to vets who have no means of getting to their VA appointments. The transportation service relies on donations to pay for vans, and volunteers to pick up and drop off veterans, including some who live as far as three hours away.

"We have a breakfast fundraiser once every three months and the only ones that will come are our members. We have that fundraiser so we can go on with our projects, but we don't get support [from the locals]. That's disheartening," says Huber.

The transportation service was recently asked to cut back its operations by 45 percent because of lack of funding, but the director refused to sign on. "What kind of people do we have running our government? So many are non-veterans. The ones that are veterans aren't supporting the veterans," says Huber.

In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs admitted an unexpected shortfall of nearly $1 billion for 2006 budget. "The administration has consistently gotten the numbers wrong throughout this war," says Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq vet and executive director of Operation Truth, an organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. "They've done this entire thing on the cheap. People at the VA are trying hard and doing their best, but in the end, they're allocated few resources."

The shortfall announcement resulted in negative press and an embarrassed Bush administration. Before Congress took its August recess, the House and Senate were at odds over how much money was needed to adequately fund the VA. The Senate asked for $1.5 billion and the House asked for $975 million. The House finally joined the Senate and approved the $1.5 billion supplement.

The question is, will the VA be able to distribute the money in time to help veterans? "I'm not sure the money will be spent on hiring healthcare professionals," says Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion, a wartime veterans organization. "It'll be spent on replacing equipment and construction maintenance problems."

For its part, the Muskogee VA Medical Center, which is enrolling 400-500 veterans a month, says the $1.5 billion supplement will fully fund all of its veterans' programs. "We haven't heard how much the trickle-down will be, but we'll be fully flush," says Greg Sorenson, chief of volunteer services at the Muskogee VA Medical Center.

Hammons says he's glad the supplement was passed, but doesn't believe it will improve the situation. "If they [politicians] supported our troops, Iraq war veterans that come back with missing legs wouldn't have to wait six months to get an appointment. Until that's taken care of, they're lying," he says. "I know personally, I'm not letting my kids join the military and have their lives destroyed.

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist gathering stories from people living in states that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Track her journey at Stories in America.