Since America mobilized after 9/11, the organization I lead, Swords to Plowshares, has met with Bay Area veterans and their families through our Iraq Veteran Project. Some of the vets we talk with are doing well. Others are struggling. All have tales to tell of the hardships visited on them and their peers -- divorce, debt, homes lost, jobs lost, businesses lost, nightmares, panic attacks, rages, fear of redeployment and suicide.
Claims for VA disability benefits have increased 36 percent since 2000: The backlog has never been greater. It can take months or years for disabled veterans to secure benefits they deserve as a result of their military service. The complexity of Iraq combat disabilities, such as traumatic brain injury, environmental hazards and post-traumatic stress disorder, may slow the process further. If a veteran's claim is upheld, he or she is entitled to retroactive benefits. But they and their families can face severe financial difficulties while they await resolution of their claims. Recent reports published by the National Security Archives show a disturbing disparity in claims resolution between National Guard and Reserve and regular forces. Fewer Guard and Reserve members are filing claims than their regular Army counterparts and are half as likely to prevail. This information was released only after threat of lawsuit from veterans' rights organizations.
Congress. In April 2005, the "Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act" was introduced, only to languish and die. The bill laid out a proactive strategy for the VA and the Pentagon to recognize mental-health needs and respond quickly. Dr. Charles Hoge, whose study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that one-third of returning troops are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and thus would qualify for mental-health services, testified to the enormous unmet need in subcommittee hearings. And yet, Congress did not value our service members enough to hold full legislative hearings on the subject. Instead, it slashed funding for Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center by half in the 2007 Defense Appropriations bill. This, despite knowing that traumatic brain injury caused by the concussive force of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is the signature wound of this war.
It failed to move legislation that would have extended presumptive VA health-care eligibility from two years to five years. Considering the delayed onset of post traumatic stress disorder, this shorter coverage will impose unnecessary and cruel obstacles for veterans in need of mental-health services. Congress also failed to approve legislation that would have provided counseling and supportive services to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at risk for homelessness.
We will ensure veterans have a voice. For your part, let your lawmakers know that you support reintroduction of the Comprehensive Assistance for Veterans Exposed to Traumatic Stressors Act. And let it be hoped that, next year, we, as a nation do better by our veterans.
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If you get the idea that we care about Veterans around here, you're right.