Wounded Veterans Treated as an Afterthought

MARFA, Texas — “But the [George W.] Bush administration was never seriously interested in helping veterans. The sorry state of care for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is not an accident. It’s on purpose.”

Journalist Aaron Glantz makes this stunning statement in his recently released book, “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans” (UC Press).

And his controversial claim is backed up by an extremely well-researched overview of the dismal state of care provided by the government for this new generation of war veterans.

Glantz, an IPS correspondent who has been covering the U.S. occupation of Iraq for years, including several months of reportage from inside Iraq, provides a devastating overview of the plight of war veterans.

From reporting on Bush administration funding cuts to the Veterans Administration (VA), to how key Republican senators like John McCain consistently vote against veteran’s benefits and supporting legislation, “The War Comes Home” makes the case.

Glantz documents what happens when veterans from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan return home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their battles with the Pentagon and VA to obtain benefits, and the psychological, mental, and physical toll this is taking on the hundreds of thousands of veterans, making “The War Comes Home” a must read for anyone wanting a clear understanding of what these occupations are truly costing those in the military.

The story of Patrick Resta, an Iraq war veteran, brings the reader into the world of a returning veteran. Resta’s wife Melissa tells Glantz that upon Patrick’s return from Iraq, “Over the course of just two or three weeks, I started to notice that if I came into a room, he would just leave,” she said, “If I said something to him, he would just snap. He didn’t want to talk to me, he didn’t want to talk to really anybody, and when I confronted him with us having problems I would get let into.”

Patrick ended up going to the VA, where he was diagnosed with PTSD. By March 2008, Glantz points out, Patrick joined over 130,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as having been diagnosed with a psychological illness by the VA’s mental health services.

While he still suffers from his illness, Patrick has gone on to make progress with the help he deserved from the VA. His story is, however, a best-case scenario.

Glantz goes on to reveal that a recent Army study that found that 18 percent of troops — out of 1,800,000 who have been to Iraq — likely suffer at least some brain damage from improvised explosive devices.

“This means as many as 320,000 potential TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury] patients,” Glantz writes. TBI symptoms include headaches, memory loss, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and balance problems.

Due to medical advances, today in Iraq 15 out of every 16 seriously wounded service members survive injuries that in previous wars would have been fatal. Yet when these veterans come home in dire need of support, they often find it lacking.

Gerald Cassidy is a case in point. After serving in Bosnia and New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cassidy volunteered to serve in Iraq. Narrowly escaping a roadside bomb while on a convoy, Cassidy was given no medical attention and kept on his duties of conducting home raids, escorting convoys, and guarding the perimetre of his camp.

Back in the United States, Cassidy was given a medical evaluation and diagnosed with PTSD. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and assigned to one of the Army’s newly created Wounded Warrior Transition Units, where injured soldiers are each supposed to be assigned a doctor, nurse care manager, and a squad leader to manage their treatment.

Five months after his return to the U.S., Cassidy was found dead in his room at Fort Knox.

Cassidy’s mother, Kay, told Glantz, “He died from lack of care. He came back from Iraq, and the Army killed him.”

Glantz reveals how Cassidy’s family went on to investigate the death, finding that their son had been lucky to have one doctor appointment and one psychiatrist appointment per month.

In addition, Kay Cassidy told of her son being left alone in his third-floor room, where he sat unattended playing video computer games. Once, he passed out in his room alone and woke up several hours later laying in a pool of blood from his nose or mouth. In another incident, her son had fainted and collapsed into a wall while walking.

“They let a young man who had passed out in his room in a pool of blood, who had passed out and hit a wall, they let a young man like that live in a dormitory room all by himself, and when he didn’t show up for [daily] roll call nobody went up to check on him for at least two and a half days,” Kay raged to Glantz, “It’s criminal negligence.”

Cassidy’s family continues to wait for answers from both the military and the U.S. government, and is one of dozens of tragedies outlined in the book that show the true cost of failed U.S. policy.

The average wait for a veteran to get an appointment at the VA is six months. Eighteen veterans — from all wars — per day are committing suicide. One thousand veterans per month, who are technically under the care of the VA, are attempting suicide.

“The War Comes Home” pulls no punches. It is a searing indictment of the total, willful failure of the Bush administration to properly care for the men and women of the military it willingly put in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IPS asked the author what he hoped might come as a result of the book.

“I hope the public gains a broader understanding of what it’s like to come home from a war — of the disconnection between those who have only experienced war on television and those who’ve seen it up close,” Glantz explained.

“I feel like we are in an important historical moment, where the incoming administration either dramatically improves conditions for veterans returning home, or we face a repeat of the shameful treatment that followed the Vietnam War. Suicides among Iraq war veterans have already begun to multiply and Iraq War veterans are living homeless on the street…I want the book to play a role in ensuring that these problems are addressed.”