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Robert David Jaffee

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Mentally Ill Veterans Deserve Our Support

Posted: 06/ 2/2011 3:13 pm

Following his reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush tried to flaunt his political "capital" (a word he used as if he had just learned what it means) with a failed bid to privatize Social Security. President Obama not only knows what capital means, he hopefully knows what to do with it in the wake of the greatest national security triumph this country has experienced since perhaps V-J Day, the Navy SEALs' stunning execution of Osama bin Laden.

Having laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Obama can now improve the health care received by our veterans, 18 of whom commit suicide every day and 6,500 of whom commit suicide every year, according to a recent article in the L.A. Times.

That information came to light when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that delays in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental illnesses attributable to combat violate the constitutional rights of veterans and contribute to their high rates of suicide.

In the ruling, a scathing critique of the Veterans Affairs Department, the circuit court argued that "the political branches have so completely and chronically failed to respect the People's constitutional rights that the courts must be willing to enforce them." The opinion, written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt and joined by Senior Judge Procter Hug, added, "The VA's unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to meet its obligations."

I couldn't agree more with the appeals court, which took nearly two years to rule on this case from the time the lawsuit was brought by two veterans groups. But its mechanism for enforcing reform of the VA, having a federal district court judge in San Francisco overhaul the mental health care system for veterans, seems unwieldy and ineffective.

Only one person can truly spark a widespread change in the way our mentally ill veterans are treated, and that is President Obama, the commander-in-chief, not a San Francisco-based judge.

I am still perplexed as to why President Obama has not used the bully pulpit to speak up on behalf of mentally ill troops. He had an opportunity to do so on Memorial Day and did not.

Yes, the president is dealing with a budget deficit, the Middle East peace process and countless other issues, but he should also be paying attention to the human toll of the two wars being fought by our magnificent troops. Those who have come home with mental illness deserve our support. And there are plenty of them. According to a 2008 Rand Institute study, an estimated 300,000 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD or major depression, which evidences that this is no mere problem facing the country. This is a crisis.

And it is a crisis that requires presidential leadership.

Last December, I wrote a piece calling for the president to write condolence letters to the families of troops who have committed suicide but otherwise behaved honorably. Recently, I contacted the White House Press Office by e-mail and phone; at press time, the White House had still not answered my question as to why the president does not send such letters in the event of a suicide.

Back in December, I also cited a report by The Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel, who wrote about how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran and a leading voice on military matters, may have blocked legislation to prevent suicides among reservists in the U.S. military. That legislation, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and named in honor of a reservist who committed suicide, was incorporated by the House last May into the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011.

McCain's camp denied the accusation that he blocked this provision, which would have provided funds for more mental-health counselors for mentally ill troops, from the final bill.

It saddens me that neither Obama nor McCain has demonstrated his clout in helping mentally ill troops, and it speaks to the continuing stigma against the mentally ill in this country.Perhaps the time will come when President Obama and Senator McCain, two patriots, will work together to improve the mental-health care of our veterans. Until then, the stigma persists.