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Veterans Return From Iraq Disabled and Homeless

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Studies find a high percentage of Iraq veterans are returning home with mental problems and homeless shelters around the country are reporting they are already seeing some recently returned Iraq veterans showing up in need of shelter. We speak with UPI Investigations editor Mark Benjamin. [includes rush transcript]

A suicide bomber killed at least seven Iraqis at an entrance to the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on Monday. The U.S. military said no U.S. soldiers were hurt in the bombing that comes a day after seven U.S. Marines were killed in two separate incidents west of Baghdad.

The attack comes a year to the day since U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein. At that time, President Bush and U.S. military commanders hoped the former president’s arrest would weaken the Iraqi resistance. But, violence has continued unabated and the death rate among U.S. troops has risen dramatically.

Nearly 1,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the war began. Many thousands more have been wounded. Last week the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the US is facing a “severe shortage of surgeons in Iraq” to treat wounded soldiers. It is now estimated that more soldiers have been injured in Iraq than during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict.

And in what appears to be a chilling echo of the Vietnam war, UPI found that homeless shelters around the country are reporting they are already seeing some recently returned Iraq veterans showing up in need of shelter. The Homeless Veterans coalition estimates that nearly 500,000 veterans are homeless at some point in a given year. Almost half served during the Vietnam era.

  • Mark Benjamin, UPI Investigations editor. He has been closely following the hidden U.S. casualties from the Iraq war. He was awarded the American Legion’s top journalism award for 2004 for his reporting on the plight of hundreds of sick, wounded and injured soldiers at Fort Stewart, Ga.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin is U.P.I.'s Investigations editor. He has been closely following the hidden U.S. casualties from the Iraq war. He was awarded the American Legion's top journalism prize for 2004 for his reporting on the plight of hundreds of sick, wounded and injured soldiers, and one particular base at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark Benjamin.

MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this piece that you wrote on the number of homeless veterans of the Iraq invasion.

MARK BENJAMIN: Yes. Homeless veterans from Iraq are just starting to show up at some homeless shelters in the country. I found 60 — 50 of them have been in touch with the veteran’s administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs. I found another 10 at a group of homeless shelters in Los Angeles called U.S. Vets. The thing that’s most disturbing, I think, about the story is that most of the people that are professionals in this area, meaning advocates for homeless veterans are very disturbed that the people are showing up already. The other very disturbing trend is that there is a correlation between mental problems and homelessness, and the number of troops coming home from this war with mental problems is quite shocking.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the mental problems. Like what?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, in general, it looks like what they call post-traumatic stress disorder. They used to call it shell shock in previous wars. Army reported in the New England journal of medicine that 17% of all of the soldiers who are just stepping off the plane would screen positive for post traumatic stress disorder and this is a problem that pops up weeks or months after serving in combat. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, around — as of last July, 30,000 soldiers from Iraq had shown up at Department of Veterans Affairs health care facilities, and one out of every five has been diagnosed with some sort of a mental problem. So, the rate — these are people that, of course, were screened as fit for service. There’s clearly something happening. If you talk to the soldiers, what you will find is that it is extremely tense and stressful combat. The enemy is 24/7, 360 degrees. It’s really very intense kind of combat. There’s often confusion between civilian and enemy combatant. It is just the combat that the soldiers say causes — and experts say causes serious mental problems.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what about the hidden casualties in addition to mental health problems? It’s a story that you have continued to cover that gets almost no coverage. We hear several thousand soldiers have been wounded, but your figures are much higher than that.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, the pentagon is not counting in its casualties anyone who is not hit by the bullets or bombs of enemy. And they’re now, you know, releasing some of these figures. It’s around, I believe, 15,000, just from Iraq, solders who are been medivacked out of Iraq for wounds or illnesses that occurred while in Iraq, but none of those soldiers appear on the Pentagon’s casualty lists, even though they were often hurt in serving their trucks roll over, a car accident, that kind of a thing. In fact, we were talking here about mental problems, about 17% of soldiers who have possibly post traumatic stress disorder, even soldiers who are medivacked out of Iraq because they have had serious mental problem, they had to be medivacked, none of those soldiers appear on Pentagon casualty lists.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a piece in the Boston Globe from last week by Raja Mishra. It says U.S. troops injured in Iraq have required limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars and as many as 20% have suffered head and neck injuries that require a lifetime of care. The picture is a grisly flipside improvement of battlefield medicine that has saved many combatants who have died in the past. Only one in ten U.S. troops injured in Iraq has died, the lowest rate of any war in U.S. history. Those who survive have much more grievous wounds.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, I think that’s probably true. It is the flip side. I mean, in the Pentagon’s defense, they do a really fabulous job, almost — almost shocking how good they are, at getting to the soldiers when they are severely injured, for example, by I.E.D.s, the explosive devices in the field. If you talk to the soldiers, they will say if you make it to Landstuhl, the hospital that the military runs in Germany, if you make it there, you’re going to live. They get you out of Iraq very, very fast. I would just have to say, in contrast to that, my reporting seemed to indicate that there are other types of injuries that the military is not doing such a good job treating. One of those would be mental problems. I keep bringing that up, because it’s such a shocking pattern among soldiers returning. I think that many of those soldiers would say that they do not get the care that they want and deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, another report out this is from The Los Angeles Times that also came out last week about the shortage of surgeons to treat the wounded in Iraq. Army has fewer than 65 surgeons at any one time, to cover 138,000 troops. They’re reporting on a piece from Atul Gawande, assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who talks about those physicians there that are there — and the military wants to bring more back — are working under very difficult circumstances. In many case, the military has taken over Iraqi hospitals. The facilities are flooded with civilian patients whom the Americans are unable to treat with no clear directive from the Pentagon on treating civilians. Some physicians refuse to help even pediatric patients out of fear that the children could be booby trapped with bombs.

MARK BENJAMIN: Yeah. I don’t know whether these — I of course, didn’t report these stories. I’m sure they’re perfectly accurate. One of the things that I do think they are is a reflection of a reality that is finally, I think, becoming very clear in the press, and that is just the size and the scope of this war. I mean, it may sound obvious to some people and not to others. I mean, I did a story last week on the number of troops, I got Pentagon data on the number of troops that are deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since the conflicts began, it and it was just short of 1 million troops, 1 million troop, had been deployed either to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or “Operation Enduring Freedom.” 300,000 troops had been deployed more than once to one of the places. We are in a really, really, big war. And what that means is anybody knows the military knows, there are only about 1.4 million active duty people wearing uniforms anywhere in the world, and about half of the number — I know I’m mixing up the numbers a little bit, but 700,000 of the million I just referred to, are active duty troops. What I’m getting at is that we have now gone through half of the army. I’m sorry; half the military completely has gone to war.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, on that note I want to thank you very much for being with us. He is U.P.I. Investigations editor.

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