Veteran benefits inflate rising cost of war

Military history professor David Holden limps through the hallways of the Fort Leavenworth Command and Staff Center, looking for a quiet place to talk.

Finding an unused classroom, the 33-year-old Army veteran sits down, crosses his right foot over his thigh.

Then takes it off.

He’s more comfortable without his prosthetic, he says, glancing at the empty boot with a taped-on tiny American flag. The end of his leg is covered in a white fuzzy sock.

He’s not shy about his injury. It’s been seven years since the bomb blast in Fallujah, Iraq, blew off his foot, damaged his hearing, ended his Army career.

Adjudged 60 percent disabled, the former captain said his life’s trajectory was forever changed.

Holden is one of more than 3,170 former military personnel in the six-county area — including Leavenworth County — who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and now receive monthly VA disability checks.

And that is a number guaranteed to grow as the number of veterans return home, settle into civilian lives and age.

Holden, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, notes how “people are surprised that an amputee doesn’t get 100 percent disability. But it’s enough.”

While Vietnam extracted a far higher death toll — 58,000 compared with 6,300 so far in the war on terror — the number of documented disabilities from recent veterans is approaching the size of that earlier conflict, according to a McClatchy Newspapers analysis of the 3.2 million on the disability rolls of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show those leaving the military in recent years are filing for and receiving compensation for more injuries than did their fathers and grandfathers.

Only one part of this is because more troops than ever survive wounds considered lethal in past conflicts.

Holden knows he could have died that day in Fallujah. Instead, he was rushed to Baghdad for a seven-hour state-of-the-art surgery, then to Germany, then home for a year at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C.

He lives daily with back pain from his gait, knee pain from a recent surgery.

“I tell my wife that I make a terrible old man.”

But his injuries led him to her, and they now have three children; he moved to Kansas two years ago to earn a history degree through the Wounded Warriors program at the University of Kansas and a new career teaching military history at elite Army institutions.

“So, really, as far as losing my foot, I’m a better man for it. It gave me a different perspective on life, reminding me how temporary life can be But it’s tough remembering that some of my friends gave the ultimate sacrifice. You hope it wasn’t in vain.”

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According to statistics from the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, 2.2 million service members have deployed once to either Afghanistan or Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, and 942,000 have deployed twice or more.

Of those, 6,300 service members died; 46,000 suffered nonfatal wounds in action.

But more than 600,000 have filed for VA disability benefits, and about 700,000 received treatment in the VA’s medical system.

That veterans today apply with greater frequency and greater urgency than in years past is the nature of these conflicts, said Linda Bilmes, a Harvard professor who co-wrote “The Three Trillion Dollar War” with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz.

In previous wars, a general seeing a brigade under stress might have pulled it back — putting the soldiers on kitchen duty for a while, she said. Now, those functions are being handled by contractors, eliminating that relief valve.

“The guys who are out in the field are relentlessly out in the field,” Bilmes said.

Beyond that, far more soldiers in this all-volunteer military have been back for two, three, four or five tours, and the long-term impact on hearing and on traumatic brain injuries caused by improvised explosive devices will be felt for years.

The VA also is more accommodating than it once was in ruling on disabilities.

Some worry that some vets are gaming the system. Holden said he’s disgusted with some who claim problems, but he agrees, too, that some wounds are not a visible as his. The post traumatic stress and skull rattling by IEDs are signature wounds of the recent wars.

According to VA data, the average Vietnam veteran in the system has 3.5 documented disabilities — more than those from the Korean War or World War II, but less than those in the Gulf War era.

The VA doesn’t actually specify whether somebody was in Iraq or Afghanistan, lumping all veterans from the first Iraq war in 1990 into a “Gulf War” category that also includes veterans from the recent wars. McClatchy’s analysis, however, zeroed in on veterans who left active duty in 2003 or later, an approximate cohort of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

That category of the most recently discharged Iraq or Afghanistan fighter has an average of six disabilities on file.

As they come home from Iraq this month, they bring with them a range of mental and physical ailments that generally worsen as a veteran ages.

Bilmes said the peak for paying out claims from World War II didn’t come until the 1980s. The peak for the Vietnam War, over nearly four decades ago, hasn’t yet been reached.

“We expect to see the same kind of lag this time around,” Bilmes said.

Veterans file disability claims if they’ve been injured during military service — whether in a combat zone or stateside. Based on the severity of the disability, the VA pays veterans compensation checks that range from $127 to $2,769 a month.

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In Jackson County, 861 from America’s two most recent wars receive the disability checks. In Clay and Platte counties, the numbers are 364 and 331 respectively.

On the Kansas side of the area, Johnson County has 699, according to McClatchy’s database, while Wyandotte County has 166.

Leavenworth County, with its much smaller population, however, has 749.

Mark Wisner, physician assistant at Leavenworth’s VA Hospital, wasn’t too surprised at the concentration of those with recent service-connected disabilities. At least 650, from all over the region, are his patients.

“This is a military-friendly town. We’re close to a big city. It’s hard to leave the camaraderies that you build up in the military. You can still feel that here,” he says. “And I see a lot of military spouses of officers who are studying here. There’s a lot of husbands and wives who met each other while serving.”

Wisen, an Army veteran who has served in three different wars, including Iraq, has an 80 percent disability rating.

His injuries are not so obvious, he says. He has heard the negative comments from civilians who have never experienced war.

“Yes, I’ve had people ask me why I was getting disability benefits,” he says. Wisner is 60, and suffers with diabetes, tinnitus, joint and bone pain, some PTSD. A long laundry list of ailments.

Because of his own deployment experience, he better understands his patients.

“Most civilians don’t know that troops in war carry with them at least 75 pounds of gear, and most carry around more than that to do their jobs. That’s hard on young people’s bodies, wearing them out faster than normal living,” he says. “I don’t get offended when someone asks. They just don’t realize because they haven’t been over there. I chalk it up to ignorance.”

He laughs when asked if he thinks his patient load will increase, adding it’s not an ‘if” but a “when.”

“I’ll probably reach my limit in a month or so,” he says.

Paul Sullivan, at the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, which helps veterans file their disability claims, isn’t so sure.

“Right now, VA is getting about 10,000 new Iraq and Afghanistan claims and patients per month,” he said. “The numbers are devastating.”

The VA received a record 1.3 million disability claims last fiscal year. The time to decide those rose to an average of 188 days — far above the goal that no claim take longer than 125 days and going in the wrong direction.

“We think we’ve got the problem identified, and we think we have the right disciplines in place,” said Thomas Murphy, who directs the VA’s compensation program. More than 2,500 new workers hired in the past three years are now experienced enough to handle the complex claims coming in.

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Given the nature of today’s disabilities, it’s difficult to calculate how much it all might ultimately cost.

“We’re in somewhat uncharted waters,” said Bilmes, the Harvard professor.

Her most recent estimates, from 2010, indicate that providing disability payments to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could range up to $500 billion over the next 40 years. All this, as the country enters a period of reduced government spending.

This worried some veterans like Holden. Wisner, however, doesn’t think the government can renege.

“With such a small percentage of Americans volunteering for military service, the government can’t afford to do that.

“The United States needs its military. The benefits are its promise to us.”