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2006-10-12

Did VA Hide Figures Showing 1 in 4 US Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Disabled From Service?

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Newly released documents reveal that more than 150,000 soldiers who left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at least partly disabled as a result of service–this translates to one in four veterans. What’s more, it appears the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was trying to hide the figures. We speak with Paul Sullivan of Veterans for America. [includes rush transcript]

While the number of Iraqi deaths since the US-led invasion is the subject of much dispute, the number of American soldiers killed is a carefully recorded figure. So far, 2,754 US troops have been killed in Iraq. While the US death toll is widely reported in the media, the hidden cost on soldiers who return from fighting is not.

Newly released documents reveal that more 150,000 soldiers who left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at least partly disabled as a result of service–this translates to one in four veterans. What’s more, it appears the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has tried to hide the figures.

The documents on the number of disability claims filed by veterans were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. But the VA initially denied the existence of the records for nine months. It was only after the Archive advised the VA that it was prepared to file a lawsuit did the agency manage to locate the records.

Paul Sullivan is the director of programs for Veterans for America and a former VA analyst. He helped the Archive with their FOIA request.

  • Paul Sullivan. Director of Programs for Veterans for America, an advocacy group, and a former V.A. analyst.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan is the Director of Programs for Veterans for America and a former VA analyst. He helped the Archive with their FOIA request. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

PAUL SULLIVAN: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you talk about exactly how you obtained these documents?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Well, the National Security Archive at George Washington University sent in a Freedom of Information Act almost one year ago, nine–ten months ago. And you’re right. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs initially denied that there were any reports that described how many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were disabled after their service in the war. What ended up happening was, I left the Department of Veterans’ Affairs about six months ago, and I learned about this Freedom of Information Act, and then the National Security Archives —

AMY GOODMAN: Everything is fine. You can keep talking.

PAUL SULLIVAN: Sorry about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, by the way — Paul Sullivan is joining us from the Reuters studio in Washington, D.C. Go ahead, Paul.

PAUL SULLIVAN: Sorry about that, Amy. What happened is the National Security Archives at George Washington University sent in a Freedom of Information Act request about nine months ago, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs initially denied that the document existed, that there was actually statistics showing how many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were disabled after their service. The National Security Archives had requested the report, because the VA prepares similar reports on Gulf War veterans. I was the project manager who created those reports each month. Now, we know from the new report on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that about one in four of those who served in the war have reported a disability since they got back from the war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Paul, in terms of the disabilities reported, was there any further information on the types of disabilities or the causes of them?

PAUL SULLIVAN: No, in fact, the report prepared by the Veterans’ Benefits Administration, a sub-agency of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, did not list the costs associated with all these disabled veterans, and it did not list categories of disabilities. For example, is it a bullet wound, is it amputation, or is it a mental health condition, or is it a traumatic brain injury? That type of information was not in the report, which goes to show that VA really doesn’t have comprehensive information about what’s happening among the returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. And that lack of information led to a $3.5 billion shortfall in the VA budget last year.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, in terms of the causes also — because I know previously I had done a report for the New York Daily News about the number of veterans who are using Veterans’ hospitals with a variety of illnesses, and a significant number with undefined illnesses that doctors could not clarify what the causes were. So at this point, your belief is that the VA doesn’t have the information on disabilities, or maybe it does have it and hasn’t yet released it?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Juan, there’s two points to go over here. The first is that the hospitals — and those are run by an agency called the Veterans Health Administration — they put out a report that actually lists the diagnoses of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the other agency, the Veterans’ Benefits Administration, where I worked, has a report that lists the disabilities where the veterans are getting monthly payments. That report does not list the specific disabilities that the veterans are receiving payments for. And that just goes to show that VA really doesn’t even know what’s going on within VA.

Let me bring you back to the healthcare report prepared by the Veterans Health Administration. You are exactly right, Juan. About a third of the veterans who are going to VA hospitals are reporting mental health problems, and more than a third of the veterans coming back are reporting ill-defined conditions. And this sounds like a repeat of the Gulf War: undiagnosed illnesses caused by toxic exposures and other things going on in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Paul Sullivan, Director of Programs for Veterans for America, an advocacy group, and former VA analyst. I wanted to ask you about this term — is it "GWOT"? The VA responding to the original request for documents about the number of disability benefits filed by veterans during the current war by claiming no documents existed apparently because the reports concerned the global war on terrorism, GWOT, rather than being limited to the Iraq war. What does that mean?

PAUL SULLIVAN: It means, in simple terms, that it appears the administration was playing a definitions game. Right now, if you read the report, Amy, from the Veterans’ Benefits Administration, it says that there is actually no official definition for the global war on terror. The global war on terror, or GWOT, has several other names: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom. So, depending upon how a reporter asked the question, the administration has a tremendous amount of flexibility in what kind of answer they want to provide.

Let me give you an example. Right now, the Department of Defense, if you ask them how many service members are in Iraq, they’ll answer 150,000. However if you ask the question, "How many service members are now deployed to the global war on terror, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?" the number is actually 250,000. The higher number takes into account service members in places like Kuwait, Qatar, Diego Garcia and the nations surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan and aboard ships. So, what VA and DOD are doing is they’re playing a definition game. If someone doesn’t ask for exactly the right kind of report and the right kind of statistic, then the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs can simply say the report doesn’t exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan, what does this mean for costs? What does it mean for all of the disability costs?

PAUL SULLIVAN: What it means is, in terms of how much money the Iraq and Afghanistan war will cost taxpayers, the war will cost billions per year well out into the future. And here’s why. There are two types of costs at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The first is for veterans to actually be treated by a doctor. That’s medical care. And as I mentioned, VA last year was short $3 billion for their healthcare budget, and they needed emergency funding in order to take care of the veterans.

The VA also pays monthly disability checks. It’s called disability compensation or pension. And those checks show up in the mail or direct deposit into veterans’ accounts due to their disabilities incurred or aggravated by military service. What’s happened is, with this flood of disability claims coming into VA, VA may be paying out billions of dollars per year for 30 or 40 years due to the disabilities — you know, missing arms, legs, psychiatric problems — from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Paul, your group, Veterans for America, what is your group hearing, in terms of these returning veterans, how they’re being treated and dealt with when they go to the VA hospitals or when they try to apply for their disability benefits?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Well, right now, because VA is in a state of crisis — they’re being flooded with new patients and new claims for disability compensation — what’s happening is the process is slowing down. It’s taking longer for veterans to see a doctor, and it’s taking longer for veterans to have their disability compensation claims processed. The number of veterans who had to wait more than six months for a disability claim decision doubled in the last year. What that means is, medical care and disability benefits delayed really means medical care and disability benefits denied.

And the veterans are starting to tell us at Veterans for America that they’re frustrated and upset about the increased delays at VA. And it shows that VA should have and could have had a plan to increase capacity. That means hire more doctors and hire more claims processors to make sure that there were not these delays among our veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, the report claiming that one in four veterans in the global war on terror are claiming disabilities. And the latest news out of Washington, General Peter Schoomaker saying on Wednesday at least 120,000 U.S. soldiers will stay in Iraq through the year 2010, the top Army officer. This is really one of the first times the Pentagon or the Bush administration has said this. I want to thank you for being with us.

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