American troops deserve better than Veterans Affairs has to offer

By Joe Katz

Drawing conclusions from a historical episode while it is still in progress is usually a foolish proposition. The moral of the Iraq War, however, is already alarmingly clear: We have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. We still don’t know how to fight an insurgency, we still don’t know how win hearts and minds, and we still don’t know how to pick the right war.

This problem extends all the way back to the home front, where we still don’t know how to take care of our soldiers.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has found itself the subject of some very pointed questions in the wake of the suicide of Jonathan Schulze. Schulze, an Iraq War veteran, was turned away by a Veterans Affairs (V.A.) hospital despite informing the staff that he was suffering symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was contemplating suicide. He checked the next day only to find he was 26th on the hospital’s waiting list. Schulze was found hanging from an electrical cord three days after that phone call.

In recent months, Schulze has been one of several vets to take their own lives after being unable to gain admission to a V.A. facility, and his case has caught the attention of prominent politicians like Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI). High-level department officials have been grilled by Congress, bitter condemnations of the system have been issued in press releases, and a full-scale investigation seems imminent. Not that any of it will do Schulze or those still warring against the ravages of PTSD any good.

An in-depth review of the workings of the V.A. may well lead to much-needed specific reforms, but it doesn’t take a special prosecutor to find the overarching problem. We have never allocated the resources that the department needs to fulfill its mission.

A Chicago economist would giddily point out that the V.A. is a perfect example of what’s wrong with socialized medicine—where the funding of services is tied to political expediency, supply will invariably end up falling short of demand. Veterans Affairs is charged with the supervision of millions of Americans with a complex set of needs and desires. Yet because veterans do not typically vote as a bloc, the federal government has been allowed to get away with assigning their requirements Marianas Trench–low priority. The annual budget for the V.A. stands at 60 billion dollars. With over 25 million living veterans, another 45 million Americans eligible for benefits because of family ties, almost 220,000 employees to pay, and a tremendous amount of infrastructure to maintain, Secretary James Nicholson is searching for change in the couch cushions of V.A. hospital waiting rooms.

The challenges of providing mental care are particularly acute. As we saw in the aftermath of Vietnam, soldiers who lived every second under threat of attack and were taught to regard all civilians as both potential allies and potential assassins are extremely susceptible to PTSD. Anti-insurgency campaigns are an incredible brutal experience, and simple removal from the battlefield does little to heal the unseen wounds they inflict. Our national failure to account for this phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s led to the indelible image in our minds of the crazed Vietnam vet picking off innocent townspeople from the clock tower with an M16. In our own day, that impression may be replaced by the much quieter surrender of brave soldiers like Schulze to the demons within.

The American people have both a moral and a practical imperative to demand a massive expansion of the VA budget in the shadows of the war on terror. The security of the United States is guaranteed by a volunteer army. We rely on young men and women who believe so strongly in our nation that they are willing to put their own bodies and minds on the line for it. Whatever your place on the political spectrum, you must admit that we owe our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines a huge debt of gratitude. Part of paying back that debt is ensuring them the best care possible for any injuries they suffer in the course of duty.

At the same time, meeting that obligation will help ensure our safety. As Iraq and Afghanistan continue to burn and new challenges heat up across the globe, it is becoming increasingly apparent that all the high-tech equipment in the world won’t make a bit of difference if there’s no one on the ground to use it. We are in the midst of a massive manpower crunch as recruits and their parents hesitate in the face of a dangerous and unpopular war. Every dollar we put toward soothing their anxieties and making them more likely to sign on the dotted line is an investment in this nation’s future well being. The U.S. spends $195 million a day on the war in Iraq alone. Surely a bipartisan effort could find another daily five million in the budget to safeguard our most irreplaceable weapon.

The last four years have seen far too much bad history repeat itself. In this, if in nothing else, we must bury the unquiet ghost of Vietnam. If the death of Jonathan Schulze is just another opportunity for partisan bickering, we have failed both our soldiers and ourselves.