Sgt. Daniel Fanning, an Iraq war veteran, spoke passionately at the Minnesota Capitol recently, about the medical care veterans receive. Fanning served in the 1158th Transportation Company, driving trucks in Iraq. Because of the constant threat of IEDs, military transport jobs are highly stressful, and many people involved suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The sergeant showed a picture of himself with three of his buddies in Iraq. Upon return home, each of them faced some mental or physical health problems. Although veterans don't talk much about mental health issues, Fanning believes two of them were suffering from PTSD. Both of them sought care from the VA. Both were put on a waiting list.
Now, both are dead.
Neither of Daniel Fanning’s buddies are listed as suicide victims. Technically they are dead from an auto accident and a motorcycle accident, at least one was alcohol-related. But Sgt. Fanning believes that both were casualties of untreated PTSD and the resultant use of alcohol in an attempt to numb the pain.
Daniel Fanning’s friends risked their lives for our country. They came back with serious mental health wounds. They were denied the medical care that they needed. They died. That’s wrong.
The key to getting the federal government to support our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan might be political embarrassment. Daniel Fanning pointed out that the Iraq war had been going on for over a year before the administration took seriously the need for better armor for American troops. It wasn't until after a National Guard soldier asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, while TV cameras were filming, why soldiers had to “dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal” to improve the armor on their vehicles, that the Pentagon responded. This story may be old news, but the impact of such neglect is deadly, and is still occurring.
If access to help from the VA has improved in any way for veterans who in are a mental health crisis, it is only because of a tragedy and the political embarrassment that it caused. In January 2007, when Jonathan Schulze, a Minnesota Marine back from Iraq committed suicide after being turned away from a Veterans Administration Medical Center despite his suicide threats, it made national news. The administration was forced to admit that veterans’ health care was tragically inadequate.
Not only are some veterans turned away when asking for help, but many of those suffering from debilitating combat stress, depression, nightmares, fear, or anger, don't even ask for help. Military culture discourages soldiers from admitting mental wounds. Veterans need to be helped even if they are not yet able to ask for it.
At the VA, it is not just a failure to increase funding to the level needed; there have been actual budget cuts in some areas. Even though there are thousands of veterans returning with traumatic brain injuries, in 2006 Congress and the Bush administration cut VA brain injury research by half – to save money. They needed to get rid of “wasteful government spending.”
These are not minor issues. To put it into perspective, the American death toll from the Iraq war is now just over 4000 men and women. A VA mental health expert estimates that there are 75 times that number – at least 300,000 – Iraq veterans with PTSD or other mental health problems!
Sgt. Fanning’s buddies did not get the help they desperately needed. Even if the VA was accurate when it claims that there has never been a waiting list for veterans in a crisis, they clearly do not do the necessary outreach to all veterans to appropriately respond to those who need mental health care and chemical dependency treatment.
Fanning, who served in the National Guard, pointed out that in addition to these problems, members of the National Guard and Reserve have a five year limit on eligibility for beginning care at the VA. Even though they faced IEDs, even though they were engaged in combat, even though they risked death for our country, just like other soldiers, if their medical problems come to light after five years, we deny them any care.
Because the Bush Administration and the federal government are unwilling to properly meet the medical needs of Minnesota veterans, including members of the Guard and Reserve, shouldn’t the state ensure that they receive the medical care they need, even if it is costly?
Such a bold move might embarrass the administration in Washington enough to stop their shameful neglect of disabled veterans. More than any lofty political rhetoric, doing so would be truly supporting our troops.