Almost half of 1.6 million former Iraq, Afghanistan troops seeking mental, medical help from VA
By Marilynn Marchione ASSOCIATED PRESS
America's newest veterans are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate, claiming to be the most medically and mentally troubled generation of former troops the nation has ever seen.
A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That's more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early '90s, top government officials told The Associated Press.
What's more, these new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments on average, and the most recent ones over the past year are claiming 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans are receiving compensation for fewer than four, on average, and veterans from World War II and Korea, just two.
It's unclear how much worse off these new veterans are than their predecessors. Many factors are driving the dramatic increase in claims — the weak economy, more troops surviving wounds, and more awareness of problems such as concussions and PTSD.
Government officials and some veterans' advocates say that veterans who might have been able to work with certain disabilities may be more inclined to seek benefits now because they can't find jobs. Aggressive outreach and advocacy efforts have brought more veterans into the system, which must evaluate each claim to see if it is war-related. Payments range from $127 a month for a 10 percent disability to $2,769 for a full one. These new veterans are seeking a level of help the government did not anticipate and for which there is no special fund set aside to pay.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in backlogged claims, but "our mission is to take care of whatever the population is," said Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits.
The AP spent three months reviewing records and talking with doctors, government officials and former troops to take stock of the new veterans. They are very different from those who fought before them.
More are from the Reserves and National Guard — 28 percent of those filing disability claims — rather than career military. Reserves and National Guard made up a greater percentage of troops in these wars than they did in previous ones.
More of the new veterans are women, accounting for 12 percent of those who have sought care through the VA. Women also served in greater numbers in these wars than in the past. Some female veterans are claiming PTSD due to military sexual trauma — a new challenge from a disability rating standpoint, Hickey said.
The new veterans have different types of injuries than previous veterans did. That's partly because improvised bombs have been the main weapon and because body armor and improved battlefield care allowed many of them to survive wounds that would had proved fatal in past wars.
"They're being kept alive at unprecedented rates," said Dr. David Cifu, the VA's medical rehabilitation chief.
All of this adds up to more disability claims, which for years have been coming in faster than the government can handle them. The average wait to get a new claim processed is now about eight months — time that an injured veteran might spend with no income.