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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Cost of injuries rise with war’s end

WASHINGTON — The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be winding down, but the long-term costs of caring for those wounded in battle is on track to rival the costs of the Vietnam War.

While Vietnam extracted a far higher death toll — 58,000 compared with 6,300 so far in the war on terror — the number of documented disabilities from recent veterans is approaching the size of that earlier conflict, according to a McClatchy Newspapers analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs data.

The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and detailing all disability payments to veterans of all wars, show that veterans leaving the military in recent years are filing for and receiving compensation for more injuries than did their fathers and grandfathers.

At the same time, McClatchy found, the VA is losing ground in efforts to provide fast, efficient and accurate disability decisions. And the agency has yet to get control of a problem that has vexed it for years: The wide variation in disability payments by state and region, even for veterans with the same ailments.

For soldiers now coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, this ongoing variation in an already-clogged disability system means the size of monthly compensation checks might be a quirk of geography.

Given the nature of today’s disabilities, it’s difficult to calculate how much it all might ultimately cost. “We’re in somewhat uncharted waters,” said Linda Bilmes, a Harvard University professor who has conducted an exhaustive study on the long-term costs of the wars.

Her most recent estimates, from 2010, indicate that providing disability payments to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans could range from $355 billion to $534 billion over the next 40 years; on top of that, costs to the VA’s medical system could range from $201 billion to $348 billion to treat veterans of the current wars.

For the VA system, that means costs will grow for years to come — even as the country is entering a period of belt-tightening that could reduce the size of government and put a damper on the agency’s ability to find the money to pay these expenses.

The fatalities in war are only a small part of its ultimate human cost. Soldiers back from the war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, or the war in Iraq, which began in 2003, carry with them a lifetime of physical and mental reminders.

According to VA and Department of Defense information compiled by the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, 2.2 million service members have deployed to one of the wars since Sept. 11, 2001; 942,000 have deployed two or more times.

Of those, 6,300 service members have died, and 46,000 have suffered non-fatal wounds in action. But more than 600,000 veterans have filed for VA disability benefits, and more than 700,000 have been treated in the VA’s medical system.

“Right now, VA is getting about 10,000 new Iraq and Afghanistan claims and patients per month,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, which helps veterans file their disability claims.

“The numbers are devastating.”

Compensating veterans for those injuries is the duty of the VA. The department has long been guided by the words of President Abraham Lincoln, who vowed “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”

The VA’s ability, or willingness, to do so has long been questioned by veterans who felt the agency tangled them in red tape. Those complaints are still aired, but outside observers say the VA has made changes in recent years to improve both its medical and disability systems.

But the department is fighting a huge tide of new veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan. With them comes a range of mental and physical ailments that generally worsen as a veteran ages.

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