I just got finished testifying on Capitol Hill regarding the strain being placed on the Department of Veterans Affairs by those coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have to give a lot of credit to Congressman John Hall, who organized the hearing, because for the first time, with him as Chair of a key subcommittee, it seems like Congress is going to move on this very serious problem.
It was somewhat disappointing, though, that despite the waves made by the Walter Reed scandal, there doesn't seem to be a lot of media interest in examining the larger story. There wasn't a single camera in the room, and just a handful of reporters. It looked like, to me, that most of the hundred or so people there were staffs of those who were testifying and committee members.
Look, I know hearings aren't the most exciting things in the world, but this is where some real meat is discussed, and it's important for the American people to hear the back and forth, to better understand the problem and what's coming.
As I said in my testimony, "Many veterans' organizations much older than VoteVets.org have been trying to get the media and politicians to pay attention for a long time. No one wanted to listen. In the end, what I find so sadly funny is that a few rats did in one day what we veterans haven't been able to do for years - get America's attention." Maybe if we had brought some rats into the hearing room, we could have gotten a few cameras, so we could keep America's attention.
The substandard care that's being doled out to Veterans right now - long waits, faulty disability ratings, wrong diagnoses, ill-fitting prosthetics, etc. - is going to multiply many times over if nothing happens soon.
Last year, VoteVets.org did a scientific poll of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing both on the issues they faced in the field, and issues they faced at home. Here is some of what we found:
• One in four veterans has experienced nightmares since returning, including 33 percent of Army and Marines veterans and 36 percent of combat veterans.
• A fifth of all veterans (21 percent) and a quarter of Army and Marines (26 percent) and ground combat veterans (27 percent) say they have felt more stress now than before they left for war.
• Among National Guard or Reserve veterans, 32 percent said their families experienced economic hardship; 25 percent feel more stress now than before the war; 32 percent experienced more extreme highs and lows; and 30 percent experienced nightmares.
• Twenty-six percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought some service from the VA or a VA Hospital, including 33 percent of Reservists and National Guard respondents.
These numbers were compiled just last fall, so we believe those numbers have held, if not gotten worse, as the violence and chaos our troops have to deal with gets more intense. Nearly 1.5 million troops have now been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. So, to put our poll in real numbers, about 390,000 troops and veterans, or more, have or will seek care from the VA, if not one more troop is deployed.
The VA cannot deal with the current load. Part of that is a systemic and process problem, which I could write a book on. But a much simpler issue is consistent underfunding of the VA. In fact, as you may remember, Secretary Jim Nicholson had to come back to beg for BILLIONS in emergency funding because his office was in denial about the need. Now, the President wants to cut the VA budget in 2009 and 2010.
So, despite the rhetoric, we're not dealing with the "tip of the iceberg." Walter Reed was one rain drop in a tropical storm that is about to turn into a Category 4 hurricane. Much like in New Orleans, the White House is refusing to build up the levees. Hell, they're proposing to take the roofs off the Veterans Affairs hospitals and centers, via their budget cuts.
Today's hearing was a great first step in sounding the alarm. Let's hope, next time, more press decides to show up.
P.S. As an aside, I'll be on Olbermann tonight to talk about Gen. Pace's comments on gays in the military. I'd tell you what I think here, but I want you to tune in. I'll be on at 8:30, MSNBC.