When young American men and women sign up to
serve in US military, our government makes a basic promise to them: that if
they are wounded in the line of duty they will get the care they need. Unfortunately,
for tens of thousands of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, that's a promise
that only exists on paper.
On Feb. 18, 2007, the headline "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at
Army's Top Medical Facility" splashed across the front page of one of the
nation's premier newspapers, the Washington Post. The article, which
described unsafe conditions and substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center, began with the story of Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, who was airlifted
out of Iraq in February 2006 with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, "nearly
dead from blood loss."
"Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall
is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold," the article
read. "When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks
up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire
building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out.
Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained
carpets, cheap mattresses."
The Washington Post's coverage of the Scandal at Walter Reed sparked
outrage and finger-pointing across official Washington, but the controversy
did not solve the problem of substandard care. Eight months later, in September,
GJ Cassidy died while receiving treatment for blast injuries at Fort Knox.
A GAO report released at the time of his death showed half of the military's
Warrior Transition Units had "significant shortfalls" of doctors,
nurses and other caregivers who to treat wounded soldiers.
It's not known how many other soldiers have died the way GJ Cassidy did –
alone while allegedly seeking medical care from their government. But what we
do know that increasingly veterans of the Iraq war are taking their own lives,
when the Pentagon and the VA fail to provide adequate medical care.
A CBS news investigation in November found that 120 veterans kill themselves
every week; or over 6,000 per year. CBS asked all 50 states for their suicide
data, based on death records for veterans and non-veterans, and found that veterans
were twice as likely to commit suicide, Among those taking their own lives was
Brian Jason Rand, who served two tours in Iraq. On February 20, 2007, the
Clarksville, Tennessee police department found his body lying facedown under
an entertainment pavilion on the banks of the Cumberland River, with a shotgun
Then there are those who become homeless because of government inaction. On
any given night 200,000 veterans sleep homeless on the street. Increasingly
those veterans are younger folks who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
People like Specialist
James Eggemeyer, who ended up homeless just a few months after returning
home from Iraq with a severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought
on by loading the bodies of dead Iraqis into a Blackhawk helicopter. The VA
took so long to process Eggemeyer's disability claim that he had to live out
of his truck while he waited. The average wait time for a veteran's disability
claim to be decided is now 183 days. More than 600,000 disabled vets are waiting.
Tens of thousands more veterans are being totally denied medical care and
disability benefits they were promised after serving abroad.
The numbers are staggering: 11,407 U.S. soldiers have been discharged for
drug abuse after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; 6,159 have been kicked out
for "discreditable incidents"; 6,436 have been discharged for "commission
of a serious offense"; 2,246 have been discharged for "the good of
the service"; and 3,365 have been discharged for "personality disorder,"
according to Pentagon data I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Among those dishonorably discharged after honorably serving in Iraq is Specialist
Shaun Manuel who returned from a tour in Iraq to find his newborn son dead
of a rare genetic disease called Muscular Spinal Atrophy. Manuel said the situation
was made even more painful when his superiors ordered him to begin training
for a second tour in Iraq.
"My son passed away," he told me. "You gonna' send an emotionally
distressed soldier to Iraq – who knows what he's going to do? I'm ready to just
blow the whole world up because I didn't see my son being born and then he just
passed away on me with no warning."
Manuel never filed paperwork to medically excuse him from the deployment.
Instead, he withdrew and buried himself in alcohol. He estimates he drank three
fifths of liquor a day. At one point, his wife had to call the police during
a domestic disturbance. So the military expelled him with dishonorable discharge
and now bars him from getting health care and disability benefits.
Even those who haven't seen combat can be in for a fight. Private
Durrell Michael threw out his back loading generators on a US military base
in South Korea. He could barely walk or stand upright, but the Army tried to
deploy him to Iraq anyway. When he fought back, they gave him a dishonorable
discharge. Now, he's in another fight: with the VA for medical care.