Support Our Troops, Anybody?

So Long as I Am Your Commander in Chief

As the violence in Iraq continues to escalate, at least 2,450 US soldiers have been killed, with roughly ten times that number seriously wounded since the beginning of the Invasion in March 2003. If current trends continue, May will be one of the deadliest months of the occupation yet for troops, with an average of over three being killed per day. 54 coalition soldiers have been killed in the first 16 days of May alone.

This probably explains why 72% of US troops in Iraq think the US should exit the country within the next year, and over 25% think the US should exit immediately. The same poll found that only one in five troops in Iraq want to heed War Criminal Bush’s call for them to “stay as long as they are needed.”

The occupation, now well into its fourth year and going strong, has already produced 550,000 Iraq war veterans. Troop morale is lower than ever before and dropping as fast as Bush’s approval ratings. Further adding to the deteriorating situation is the mindless adherence to the highly absurd pledges of the “commander in chief.”

“To all who wear the uniform, I make you this pledge: America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief. Most Americans want two things in Iraq: They want to see our troops win and they want to see our troops come home as soon as possible,” he says, ad nauseum, “And those are my goals as well. I will settle for nothing less than complete victory.” Just as he settled for nothing less than complete exemption from military service in Vietnam, a fact his soldiers are all too aware of.

Meanwhile, troops returning from Iraq are finding little comfort in the hollow rhetoric of their chief chicken-hawk. The medical attention necessary to support the troops is becoming scarcer with each passing tax-cut.

When soldiers come home from Iraq, the support they need in order to physically and mentally recover from the hell of Iraq is way out of reach for most. With their pay and benefits cut, health care, already scarce in many cases, is soon to become even more difficult to access.

A case in point is Marine Lance Cpl. James Crosby. He left Iraq strapped to a gurney after his legs were paralyzed and his innards lacerated by shrapnel. When he exited the combat zone to head back home for treatment, he realized the military cut his pay by 50%. “Before you leave the combat zone, they swipe your ID card through a computer, and you go back to your base pay,” he said.

Of Course He Supports the Troops

Veterans are a different matter, as a growing number of them are beginning to realize, waking up to the fact that there is an ever-widening gap between what their “commander in chief” says and what he does. While Mr. Bush is busy telling reporters that he supports the troops in Iraq, even military web sites are posting stories like one from February 28 of this year titled “Vets May Be Denied Health Care,” which stated:

At least tens of thousands of veterans with non-critical medical issues could suffer delayed or even denied care in coming years to enable President Bush to meet his promise of cutting the deficit in half – if the White House is serious about its proposed budget. After an increase for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing by leaps and bounds, White House budget documents assume a cutback in 2008 and further cuts thereafter.

In the same story, Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, the top Democrat on the panel overseeing the VA’s budget, said: “Either the administration is proposing gutting VA health care over the next five years or it is not serious about its own budget.”

Disturbingly and more recently, on March 21st, a House Budget Committee Report shows us that this does indeed appear to be the Bush plan for “supporting the troops”:

The President’s 2007 budget provides $36.1 billion for appropriated veterans programs, which is $2.9 billion above the amount enacted for 2006 and $1.8 billion above the amount needed to maintain purchasing power at the 2006 level.

Beyond 2007, however, veterans funding is cut in almost every year. Over five years, the budget cuts funding $10.0 billion below the level the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates is needed to maintain purchasing power at the 2006 level.

Thus, their “commander in chief” will cut the veterans discretionary budget by $10 billion over the next five years.

Supporting Troops, Pentagon Style

To save the troops from lack of health care, our government has devised an ingenious solution, which is to let them continue in combat. Last week the US military was found to be violating its own rules concerning mentally ill troops by sending them back into combat. A recent news piece by the Hartford Courant stated:

US military troops with severe psychological problems have been sent to Iraq or kept in combat, even when superiors have been aware of signs of mental illness, a newspaper reported for Sunday editions.

Citing records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews of families and military personnel, the newspaper reported “numerous cases in which the military failed to follow its own regulations in screening, treating and evacuating mentally unfit troops from Iraq.” The piece tells us that 22 US soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq last year, which is the highest suicide rate since the war began.

The article goes on to say that some of the service members who killed themselves during 2004 and 2005 had been kept on duty despite clear signs of mental distress, and had been prescribed antidepressants after little or no mental health counseling.

Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, minces no words: “I can’t imagine something more irresponsible than putting a soldier suffering from stress on [antidepressants], when you know these drugs can cause people to become suicidal and homicidal. You’re creating chemically activated time bombs.”

The article also quotes Dr. Arthur Blank Jr., a psychiatrist who assisted in having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recognized as a diagnosis after the Vietnam War: “I’m concerned that people who are symptomatic are being sent back. That has not happened before in our country.”

Turning Troops Into Time Bombs

Among medical professionals, there is an unstated urgency that soldiers receive adequate treatment promptly upon returning home. “If we don’t get intervention within the first five years, the veteran is set up for a lifetime of problems,” says John Wilson, a psychology professor at Cleveland State University. In an Associated Press (AP) story from April 30, Professor Wilson also adds, “Iraq is a nonstop, 24-seven, hostile environment, so what happens is that these guys are incredibly wired all the time. One of the things we learned from Vietnam is that once that hyper arousal response develops, it doesn’t go off.”

The tragic death of Andres Raya, a 19-year-old US Marine, demonstrates this condition. The young man decided to commit suicide by inducing a gun battle with police officers in his hometown of Ceres, California, with the apparent motive of avoiding an impending return to duty in Iraq.

Raya, who fought in the April 2004 US assault on the city of Fallujah, had returned to the US on January 8, 2005, for a holiday. His mother later described his condition to the Modesto Bee thus: “He came back different.”

He told his family on several occasions he did not want to go back to Iraq. According to local police, Raya went to a liquor store in Ceres wearing a poncho and “talking about how much he hated the world.” He asked the store owner to call the police. Police officer Sam Ryno responded. He arrived to find Raya pulling the assault weapon from under his poncho. He shot Ryno, causing serious injuries. When another police officer arrived in the liquor store parking lot, Raya shot him twice in the back of the head, killing him, and then disappeared. Three police departments, the California Highway Patrol, and SWAT officers had to search the area for the distraught veteran. When they found him, after a brief but fierce gun battle, Raya was dead, with over 60 bullets in his body.

An article in the Modesto Bee described the final battle as Raya “shooting military style at the officers,” while using “some of the same darting and dodging techniques we have seen in reports from Iraq.” The police chief of Ceres told the Bee, “It was premeditated, planned, an ambush…. It was suicide by cop.”

PTSD: “Post” for a Reason

Veterans who make it home alive from Iraq are immediately faced with the task of reconstructing their lives as they battle the effects of PTSD, which include anger, rage, isolation, sleeplessness, anxiety and anti-social behavior. In another AP story from April 28 of this year, the body of Spc. Robert Hornbeck, 23, was found in a hotel in Savannah, Georgia, after he had been missing for 12 days.

“A body found with items belonging to a Fort Benning soldier … was discovered … at a downtown hotel after guests complained of a foul odor in the lobby,” read the story. Hornbeck had spent a year in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division and was to be married to his college sweetheart this July. Instead, due to lack of treatment for PTSD, “A maintenance worker at the De Soto Hilton hotel found the body of a man inside a large piece of air-conditioning equipment. Firefighters wearing hazard suits removed the body several hours later.” His father believed that Hornbeck was highly intoxicated at the time of his death.

Then there are the soldiers who come home,suffering massive trauma from their experience in Iraq. Joshua Omvig, a soldier from Iowa, returned home and killed himself in front of his mother, due primarily to lack of assistance in dealing with his PTSD. The distraught parents of the 22-year-old veteran decided to deal with their loss by creating a web site in his memory, where his mother described the emails they receive from other soldiers: “It’s been hundreds a day – so many heartbreaking stories. It’s like the same story over and over again, just different names, different towns. A lot of them will make you cry, there’s so much pain.”

A 2004 study of several Army and Marine units returning from Iraq and Afghanistan that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine found that only between 23 and 40 percent of those with PTSD had sought treatment. And post-traumatic stress is called “post” for a reason – its most serious symptoms usually emerge long after the trauma is over.

Confessions From the Accountability Office and Others

Last week the Government Accountability Office announced that “less than one quarter of the US military’s Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who show signs of post-traumatic stress are referred for additional mental health treatment or evaluation, according to a government study.”

Nonetheless, the VA has admitted that a staggering 35% of veterans who served in Iraq have already sought treatment in the VA system for emotional problems from the war. This statistic was also confirmed by a US Army study.

A piece written by Judith Coburn for TomDispatch entitled “Shortchanging the Wounded,” posted this April, reveals many of the following startling statistics.

Nearly one in three veterans have been hospitalized at the VA, or visited a VA outpatient clinic, due to an initial diagnosis of a mental-health disorder, according to the VA itself. These numbers are consistent with a recent Army study on soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Such a rate might add up over time (depending on how long these occupations last) to what could be over half a million veterans who need treatment.

The VA admits its disability system was overburdened even before the administration invaded Iraq; and, by 2004, it had a backlog of 300,000 disability claims. Now, the VA reports that the backlog has nearly doubled, at 540,122. By April 2006, 25% of the rating claims took six months to process. So veterans wounded severely enough to be unable to work are left high and dry for up to half a year. Worse yet, an appeal of a rejected claim frequently takes years to settle. One hundred twenty-three thousand disability claims have been filed so far by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, in its budget requests, the Bush administration has constantly resisted Congressional demands to increase the number of VA staffers processing such claims. Here is what the VA’s national advisory board on PTSD says in a report released in February, 2006:

[The] VA cannot meet the ongoing needs of veterans of past deployments while also reaching out to new combat veterans of [Iraq and Afghanistan] and their families within current resources and current models of treatment.

How many Iraqi veterans will eventually join the ranks of the 400,000 troops-turned homeless vets already on the streets of American cities?

Support Our Troops: Anybody?

When answering a question following a speech he gave on March 20th, the day after the three year anniversary of the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, Bush said, “… the best way you can help is to support our troops. You find a family who’s got a child in the United States military, tell them you appreciate them. Ask them if you can help them.”

Now is the time to stand up and be counted. It is going to take a little more than pasting stickers of yellow ribbons that read “Support Our Troops” on the bumpers of your SUVs and cars. Are the patriotic citizens of the United States of America willing to support our troops? Because their “commander in chief” sure as hell is not going to.