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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

They Put Their Lives On The Line. And Now...

These US soldiers fought in a war. Now they are back home. And how are we welcoming them back home?

We organize parades and spread "WELCOME HOME" banners across streets and on bridges. But that is not enough. A soldier who returned from a war carries his wounds, both physical and mental, and he needs help,- and that help can be awfully slow in coming. According to this Detroit News Online article,

Soldiers from Michigan who risked their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning home to a veterans' benefit system that is overwhelmed, causing delays in medical and mental health treatment.

"I'm very frustrated I can't get the treatment I need," said Nathaniel Ganzeveld, 22, of Dearborn, a discharged lance corporal in the Marine Reserves who fought in Iraq and who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ganzeveld says he has waited five months for any determination on most of his claim.

The problems in Michigan are part of a national logjam of 334,611 veterans from across the country who awaited approval of benefits at the end of October, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That is 40 percent more than the VA says it deems optimal, and far beyond what members of Congress and veterans' groups consider justified.

Since the end of October 2003, the number of pending cases has jumped 14 percent.

Many veterans are waiting for nearly six months. From October 2003 to October 2004, the number of cases pending nationally for more than 180 days increased by about 25 percent, from 57,414 to 71,406.

The VA seems to think there is not a systemic problem. Clearly, the vets who need its services opine differently.

"We've treated about 30,000 or 35,000 veterans of the war against terrorism, and they are in the network that is going to be taking care of about 5 million veterans," said Phil Budahn, a spokesman for the VA in Washington. "That should not strain the system."

But veterans say it does.

Ganzeveld says he cannot work and his condition puts pressure on his marriage and young family.

"My wife is at her wits' end dealing with me and dealing with the VA,' Ganzeveld said. "I mean, let's do something about my problems. They won't do anything without being kicked in the rear and scooted along."

Veterans groups are outraged. A presidential campaign event at the American Legion Fort Dearborn Post on Oct. 18 was interrupted by veterans who shouted questions at Dingell about when they would receive necessary medical services.

In Metro Detroit, the backlog of claims is 6,984, and 1,400 new cases are filed each month. There are two VA hospitals in southeast Michigan, one in Detroit and one in Ann Arbor.

"They are treated like dogs when they get home," said Dingell, who had already sent an official letter of inquiry to the secretary of the Army before he was confronted.

"I am trying to get the numbers on how much the VA is short of money. There is some claim that the entire VA has been underfunded in recent years by $9 billion. The two hospitals in Michigan are $2 million and $9 million short."

Treatment delayed

As Nate Ganzeveld marched along the road to Baghdad, witnessing the carnage of war, he said he had no idea his welcome home would be anything like this.

It would also be a mistake to think that the VA is merely failing to properly process the incoming enemies of the ongoing wars. I have an acquaintance whose step-father recently died of lung cancer. The man was a Vietnam veteran with multiple tours of duty under his belt. When he showed up at a VA hospital with an advanced form of cancer he was advised not to wait for help as the line was long and he should not expect to live long enough; that assessment turned out to be correct.

They put their lives on the line, in our name. This is what they get from us in their hour of need.

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