Globe writer Charles M. Sennott chatted with Boston.com readers about how the Department of Veterans Affairs may be failing to provide adequate treatment for returning veterans.
Charles_M__Sennott: This is Charles Sennott, The Boston Globe reporter who wrote a Sunday article about an Iraq war veteran, Marine Pvt. Jonathan Schulze, who was suicidal and denied (or delayed) treatment by the VA. Four days after being turned away, he took his own life.
Charles_M__Sennott: The question we are putting forward is whether the VA is failing in its promise to provide medical and mental health care for returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans? What is your experience with the VA? Some people have pointed to the many areas of excellence of the VA as well. So what are your thoughts on the system? I will be answering questions on line for the next hour. I look forward to hearing from you.
Meghans_aunt: What can citizens do to help get Veterans the rights they have earned?
Charles_M__Sennott: For those who want to help veterans, you can write to your congressman about this issue. U.S. Rep Marty Meehan in the Mass. delegation is on the Veterans Affairs committee and has been an active advocate for veterans. US Senator John Kerry has also been an outspoken advocate on behalf of veterans. So a letter to them would be a good place to start. But there are also a large number of veterans' advocacy groups you could reach out to. A prominent one in Washington, DC is Veterans for America.
Kerry: Do you think this problem is indicative of the Bush administration's incompetence to govern, a la the New Orleans fiasco?
Charles_M__Sennott: It's a fair question to ask. What I have been hearing in talking to veterans and veterans' families across the country is a great deal of concern about the war in Iraq, about the questionable intel. that led to the involvement and what they see as a flawed strategy in the way it has been fought. But beyond the politics of the war effort is the promise by the US government to offer medical and mental health care to those veterans who have risked their lives for the country. There are many veterans out there who believe that promise has not been lived up to, that the VA s not adequately funded nor prepared to handle the onslaught of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA officials I have spoken with recognize that there are serious challenges they are facing, but many are eager to point out that the VA is providing excellent care in many areas. And I believe this is true. There are many good people within the system providing excellent care. But there is no question that more attention needs to be paid to governing and funding the VA and ensuring that all veterans receive the care they need.
i_heart_charlie: Did you find that VA service varies by region? If so, how does Boston stack up to other regions? Do areas with a bigger military presence (San Diego, Virginia, etc.) get better care or funding?
Charles_M__Sennott: Yes, there is a great deal of difference in quality of care depending on which state and which particular VA facility the veterans are in. There are pockets of poor management and many areas of core excellence, according to the people we have interviewed inside the system and the advocacy groups who fight for veterans rights. Within these parameters, it seems that the VA system in Massachusetts is not unlike the rest of the country. It has some problems, but it also has great programs that are working effectively. Overall, my sources inside the VA say Mass. is among the better states for offering veterans services and Vermont and Maine and New Hampshire are also held up as providing good care. But that said, we are still hearing of persistent complaints surrounding the issue of mental health care in particular. And also in the delays in processing disability claims.
friendly: I read your story and I thought it was heartwrenching. Does anybody quantify this cost of the war? It seems as if all we hear about is how much money it costs, not the human cost.
Charles_M__Sennott: There are many veterans' advocacy groups which are focusing on these and trying to documnt the human toll of those veterans who are falling through the cracks of the VA health care system. The GAO has also looked into this and congressional hearings are starting to get underway to ask hard questions about how well the government is doing in living up to its promise to care for veterans.
soxfan: So how often does something like this happen? Aren't there plenty of people who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and don't have these problems?
Charles_M__Sennott: Marine Private Jonathan Schulze's case is a very stark illustration of what happens when veterans do not receive the care they deserve in a timely fashion. It is probably more stark than most stories and certainly his story ended with a bitter tragedy. But, sadly, Schulze's story is not an uncommon tale, according to veterans' advocates. Vet advocates and families have been getting in touch with us about a significant number of veterans who have suffered terribly from a failure to get mental health treatment and there are, sadly, other examples of the returning veterans taking their own lives.
choo_choo: I feel as if people who oppose the war just don't understand how it affects the veterans. Don't you think part of the reason why these vets are so depressed is they come home and see protests, anger toward them? Reading your story, all I could think was 'these people need our support!!'
Charles_M__Sennott: I think you raise a very important question here. Many veterans feel that their service in Iraq is not valued, that the policy is misguided, and that the populace of America is turning against the war. The veterans with whom I have spoken say that their anguish from war is intensified when they feel that the mission does not have valor or is not supported by the democracy for which they are fighting. It is complex political, emotional terrain but it is ground that has been tread before by veterans in Vietnam. Consider that Marine Jonathan Schulze's father, James, served three tours in Vietnam... He addressed your question, remembering that he was spit on in uniform when he returned from Vietnam. Certainly, the American public learned from that and James feels things are not as bad today. But he said many veterans, including his son, suffer when they hear about criticism that the war is misguided. They begin to question why they went through such hell ... And as a father within a family with a long tradition of military service, James Schulze feels betrayed by the VA's failure to provide necessary care for his son. For him, it feels like he is revisiting many of the same issues he faced returning from Vietnam.
talker: Hi Charles - I missed your story on Sunday but read it today on boston.com. Will there be any changes at the VA as a result of your story and this study?
Charles_M__Sennott: I don't know ... If there is to be change, it will grow out of pressure on the system through congress, through journalism and through citizens raising their voices to be sure veterans get the care they deserve.
talker: I think the lack of preparedness at the VA stems from an overall failure to pre-plan for Iraq. We went into the country under false pretense, and now the country is in civil war. The Bush Administration did not plan for civil war, and they haven't planned to help our veterans returning home.
Charles_M__Sennott: Your point of view is one I have heard expressed by many veterans and their families. It was very pointedly expressed by the family of Marine Pvt. Jonathan Schulze. There is no question that the Bush Administration entered the war in Iraq with the belief that it would pay for itself through oil revenues. And there is no question now that the war certainly hasn't paid for itself. The price tag of the war has surged past $500 million by conservative estimates. (Some researchers have placed the financial cost much higher.) Even the Bush administration concedes that this war did not go the way it planned. The practical implication of the war spiraling out of control was that the VA did not receive increased funding, particularly in the first few years after September 11th. And so the VA system was ill prepared for the serious physical and mental injuries of returning veterans. Now the VA seems to be feeling the strain and the lack of coordination that came with flawed planning. That is certainly the point of view we have heard from veterans advocates and policy makers in Washington on this issue. The VA officials in Washington, DC do not agree, and they are quick to point out that the VA is looking forward to an increase in its budget to respond to the situation. But many wonder if it is not too little, too late. Others say the VA has enough funding, it simply needs to have more attention to working in better coordination with the military (DOD) to be sure veterans do not fall through the cracks of a vast and bureaucratic system. There are many sides to the issue, but certainly a growing consensus that this veterans issues need more focus as the big numbers of veterans begin returning home from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
QM: Did the US government recently reduce the funding for VA services? I seem to remember something coming up about that in the past year or so. I worked for the VA in Boston as an intern, and I worked with the Trauma Dept. There are so many cases similar to this, and there is such a lack of acknowledgement and funding by those in power to make change.
Charles_M__Sennott: Actually, the proposed VA budget for next year calls for a significant increase in funding to address the growing need for services. I believe the proposed budget for next year would add $19 billion to the VA's current budget of approximately $75 billion. (It's hard to get your hands on accurate total budget figures as the VA has had many emergency appropriations and I do not have all of the data at my fingertips right now.) If you worked at the VA in Boston, I would be very interested in talking with you about how all of this looks from the inside. I would invite you to send a more private email and contact details to my private Globe email address (email@example.com)
Meghans_aunt: Maybe it's just my experience, but I don't see the anger directed at the soldiers, but at the administration that put them there. I would hate to think the soldiers feel there is any animosity towards them. I feel grateful for their sacrifice, but want them to come home safely and soon. Am I wrong in this assumption?
Charles_M__Sennott: No, I think you are correct that most Americans appreciate the service of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan -- even if they disagree with the war. I think the majority of veterans know that.... I might add here that many veterans themselves also disagree with the war in Iraq and are increasingly questioning and confused about the purpose of the war. At least, this is a commonly held opinion of many veterans with whom I have spoken. I'm sure there are many others who would disagree and believe completely in the purpose of the war. In Afghanistan, I have not heard criticism among the troops of the purpose of their mission in Afghanistan. But I have heard lots of frustration that so much money and equipment and attention is going to fight in Iraq when the attacks of 9-11 emanated from Afghanistan.
julio_lugo: Is it really the VA's fault veterans aren't getting the services they deserve? Doesn't this represent a proper lack of funding and attention from the Department of Defense, military, and president himself?
Charles_M__Sennott: The VA has 235,000 employees. So it is hard to generalize about any of this in such a vast health care system. Many of those VA employees are committed and passionate professionals who work hard to provide services for veterans and do an excellent job. But the criticism that the VA system is strained and needs more funding and coordination is the issue at hand, not whose fault it is. One thing I have heard from very senior VA and military officials is that the D0D and VA need to work more closely together to more effectively provide veterans the services they deserve. There seems to be common ground on that one issue in particular.
i_heart_charlie: Seems that a big hurdle in treating mental illness among vets is the tough-guy air the permeates the military. Do you see any realistic way to balance mental health sensitivity while still steeling our troops for battle?
Charles_M__Sennott: You have put your finger on a very important point. The military needs to do more to remove the stigma (and sometimes professional liability) that can come with a soldier admitting that the war has taken a toll on his or her mental health. A well known psychologist and expert on PTSD has worked his whole life to get the military to understand that PTSD is a war injury just like any other injury ... It will require the military and VA seeing it that way for big gain s to be made in providing treatment. Slowly, the military and the VA are getting there.
Charles_M__Sennott: Time is up. But these were excellent questions and I am sorry I did not have a chance to get to all of them.
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