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60,000+ Iraq, Afghanistan Vets Diagnosed With PTSD

VA Official: More Than 60,000 Iraq, Afghanistan Vets Diagnosed With PTSD


By Jason Leopold

Jonathan Schulze was awarded two Purple Hearts in 2005 after a lengthy tour of duty in Iraq.

But the Marine veteran couldn't escape the war inside his head.

Drugs and alcohol temporarily numbed his pain. Yet the guilt he carried around with him having been one of a handful of soldiers in his unit to survive combat was impossible to run away from.

Schulze was suicidal.

On January 11, 2007, he sought treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. His parents drove him to the VA hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Schulze told the VA staff that he "felt suicidal," his mother, Marianne Schulze, recalled.

The hospital didn't admit him. Instead, he was told to call back the following day. He did. He was given a number: 26. The VA staff told him he'd have to wait at least two weeks to be admitted. Apparently, there were other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were also suffering from PTSD. It's unknown whether they met the same fate.

On January 16, 2007, Schulze placed a framed photograph of his one-year-old daughter beside him. He wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and hung himself in the basement of a friend's house in New Prague, Minnesota. He was 25 years old.

This week, Schulze's story is being retold in a federal courthouse in San Francisco as evidence of the widespread, systemic failures by the Veterans Administration to treat tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who suffer PTSD.

Attorneys for two veterans advocacy organizations are hoping to convince a judge that a lawsuit filed against the Department for Veterans Affairs last year and several government officials associated with the VA should receive class-action status. In their lawsuit, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, which represent about 12,000 veterans combined, claim Iraq and Afghanistan war vets are dying while waiting for the VA to treat PTSD and work through a backlog of at least half-a-million disability claims. The groups want Conti to issue a preliminary injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show signs of PTSD and are at risk of suicide.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is said to be the most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat. According to the lawsuit, “more than any previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to produce a high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD,” due to the widespread use of improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity of fighting combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National Guard members and Reservists.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs' attorneys allege that numerous VA practices stemming from a 1998 law violate the constitutional and statutory rights of veterans suffering from PTSD by denying veterans mandated medical care.

"Because of those failures, hundreds of thousands of men and women who have suffered grievous injuries fighting in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned," states the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California. "Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families, and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system and other social services in our communities."

VA attorneys had argued in court papers filed last month that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not "entitled" to the five-years of free healthcare upon their return from combat as mandated by Congress in the "Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act." Rather, the VA argued, medical treatment for the war veterans was discretionary based on the level of funding available in the VA's budget.

On Tuesday, the second day of testimony before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti, Dr. Gerald Cross, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, made a startling admission during cross-examination by the plaintiffs' attorneys that would appear to contradict the agency's position.

Cross admitted that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were not only entitled to free healthcare, "there is no co-pay," he said.

Perhaps most startling, however, was testimony by Cross stating that of the 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars treated at VA hospitals, more than half were diagnosed with a serious mental condition, 68,000 of which were cases of PTSD.

His testimony marks the first time a Bush administration official has provided detailed information about the psychological impact of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on combat veterans. Cross testified that five years after the invasion of Iraq, the VA has still not completed a study on the link between suicides and PTSD among combat veterans. However, he said such a study is currently in the works and may be published soon.

Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, Paul Sullivan, said more than 5,000 veterans commit suicide per year.

Dr. Arthur Blank, a renowned expert on PTSD who has worked closely with the VA, testified that about 30 percent of Iraqi war veterans are likely suffering from PTSD due to multiple deployments and the VA is not doing enough to care for them.

"I think it's because of multiple deployments, which means one is exposed to trauma over and over again," Blank testified.

Last week, Daniel Cooper, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, abruptly resigned. Sullivan's group had called for Cooper's resignation two weeks ago in light of the huge backlog of benefits claims that have yet to be processed by Cooper's department.

Last August, the Pentagon's Inspector General revealed that Cooper used his government position to promote the work of a fundamentalist Christian organization, a violation of the laws governing the separation of church and state.

Cooper, and several high-ranking military officials, appeared in a promotional video for Christian Embassy, an evangelical organization that evangelizes members of the military and politicians in Washington, DC via daily Bible studies and outreach events. The group holds prayer breakfasts on Wednesdays in the Pentagons executive dining room, according to the organization's web site.

Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, whose organization called for a federal investigation after government officials were discovered to have participated in the Christian Embassy promotional video, said Cooper is a "disgrace."

"The D in Dan stands for disgrace," Weinstein said in an interview. "He's a disgrace to the United States Naval Academy, the United States Navy, the US armed forces, the Veterans Administration, and the United States of America. Why? Because we have him on videotape making it very clear to the world that the most important part of his job was to push the fundamentalist agenda of the Christian right over his specified duties at the Veterans Administration. Dan Cooper has used the United States Constitution as his personal roll of toilet paper. I wish him as much good fortune as he has provided to our honorable and noble veterans; none."

*************

Jason Leopold is senior editor and reporter for Truthout. He received a Project Censored award in 2007 for his story on Halliburton's work in Iran. Jason is the author of the National Bestseller, News Junkie, a memoir. He is the editor of BackgroundBriefing.org, a new online political magazine scheduled to launch in March. He can be reached at jasonleopold [at] hotmail.com.

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