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Veterans Seek Disability In Staggering Numbers

As we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country on this Memorial Day, we should also remember our obligation to care for those who continue their fight with a staggering array of injuries.

Of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an overwhelming 45% of them are seeking compensation for service related injuries. This compares to 21% from the first Gulf War. Ironically the rise is mainly due to body armor that allowed personnel to survive what would have been fatal just a few years ago.

“They’re being kept alive at unprecedented rates,” said Dr. David Cifu, the VA’s medical rehabilitation chief. More than 95 percent of troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived.

But body armor doesn’t prevent a wide variety of injuries that, though not life threatening, is nevertheless traumatic and with the potential of a lifetime of problems for those injured. Tens of thousands of veterans suffered traumatic brain injury, mostly mild concussions from bomb blasts, and doctors can’t predict what is in store for them long-term.

“It’s very rare that someone has just a single concussion,” said David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. Sustaining multiple concussions raises the risk of long-term problems. Brain injuries also make the brain more susceptible to PTSD.

More than 560,000 veterans from all wars currently have claims that are backlogged—older than 125 days.  Disability claims from all veterans soared from 888,000 in 2008 to 1.3 million in 2011. Last year’s included more than 230,000 new claims from Vietnam veterans and their survivors because of a change in what conditions can be considered related to Agent Orange exposure.

The volume of disability claims has strained the VA’s outmoded systems. The VA is streamlining and going to electronic records, but for now, “We have 4.4 million case files sitting around 56 regional offices that we have to work with; that slows us down significantly,” said the VA’s benefits chief.

Linda Bilmes, a Harvard economist, estimates the health care and disability costs of the recent wars at $600 billion to $900 billion. “This is a huge number and there’s no money set aside,” she said. “Unless we take steps now into some kind of fund that will grow over time, it’s very plausible many people will feel we can’t afford these benefits we overpromised.”

“The deal was, if you get wounded, we’re going to supply this level of support.” Bilmes added, “There’s a lot of sympathy and a lot of people want to help. But memories are short and times change.”

A short memory about the sacrifice of our military is nothing new. Too often Americans have rallied to cheer the troops as they return home, waved the flag on Memorial Day, and then failed to fulfill our moral contract with those who stood in our place on foreign fields of war. Perhaps this Memorial Day we will determine to change that.

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