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America’s Combat Veterans: The Waiting Wounded

The Economist IN WAR, it is said, there are no unwounded soldiers. Bombs that shatter bones also batter brains. Even on the periphery, war afflicts men with aching joints, ringing ears and psychological damage. Imagine, then, the human damage wrought by over a decade of battle. America does not have to. Its wounded warriors are now seeking help in record numbers. Nearly half of its 1.6m soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have asked for disability benefits from the government. (Just 21% filed similar claims after the first Gulf war, according to estimates.) With ageing veterans of earlier conflicts also seeking more help, America’s disabled-servicemen population has increased by almost 45% since 2000. Some of them may be reacting to a bad economy, perhaps growing shrewder in their pursuit of benefits. But disability claims are also up because of positive developments. Advances in battlefield medicine mean more wounded are surviving their wounds. Mental-health problems once dismissed are now treated seriously. And the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has expanded access to benefits for older servicemen who were exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam or are suffering from Gulf-war syndrome, while easing the requirements for claiming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having created, by virtue of war, and recognised, by virtue of policy, more wounded veterans, America’s government might have anticipated the challenges they pose. But the system responsible for helping these men and women as they find their ways back into civilian life has been overwhelmed. Ironically, it is Eric Shinseki who oversees this broken bureaucracy. Before becoming Barack Obama’s secretary of veterans’ affairs, the former general earned the ire of George W. Bush’s cabinet by testifying that “several hundred thousand soldiers” might be needed in Iraq. Mr Shinseki was right, but now he heads an agency that is both understaffed and ill-equipped. The VA is crumpling under a growing pile of disability claims. In some cases literally: last year the department’s inspector-general said the mounds of paperwork at one regional office threatened the building’s structure.  See the Full Story from the Economist.