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Wounded U.S. veterans get a raw deal at home

Sunday, February 08, 2004

There's no emotional sting like the one inflicted by that 500 number. It's larger now, the total of Americans dead from an Iraq war launched on false pretenses, but 500 is getting a lot of usage as the ultimate cost of this mess. It's a cost 500 can't begin to illuminate.

How about at least 9,000 servicemen and women wounded, sickened or injured? How about 6,891 troops medically evacuated for non-combat conditions between March 19 and Oct. 30, 2003?

"There are about 2,500 combat casualties," Dave Autry said on the phone from the Disabled American Veterans offices in Washington. "The rest are attempted suicides, vehicle accidents, other accidents, illness. Something that's becoming a big concern is lesions caused by exposure to sand fleas that carry a particularly virulent bacteria."

All of this could be categorized as the inevitably horrible cost of post-modern war in the desert, but the scandal is what is happening to these survivors once their government brings them home. Tom Keller, the immediate past commander of the DAV in Ohio, wrote to me last month about the secretive nature of the process.

"I can't speak for the DAV's national organization," Tom said, "but I have my own feelings about why the Bush administration is bringing the casualties back to the States in the middle of the night and wants to keep organizations like the DAV away from them. I believe the administration wants to keep the American people in the dark about the number of troops being wounded, the severity of the injuries they are receiving and the types of illnesses that may be surfacing."

There are reasons potentially too disturbing even to ponder as to why the Defense Department, for example, would want to do what Keller is suggesting, but the evident reason appears to be depressingly common: money. It appears that the government does not want these veterans even to be aware of, let alone receive, the benefits due them for donating their limbs and their souls and their innocence to America.

The DAV's executive director, David Gorman, who left both his legs in a stinking Southeast Asian jungle more than 30 years ago, took up the subject early last month in a letter to Secretary of Offense Donald Rumsfeld.

"For more than six decades," Gorman wrote, "the DAV has always been granted access to military hospitals so our professionally trained and fully accredited representatives could provide such crucial information and counseling to service members to help smooth their transition from military to civilian life. Sadly, that is no longer the case. The current policies of the Department of Defense citing the Privacy Act and security are preventing our skilled representatives from carrying out our congressionally chartered mission.

"At one facility in particular -- Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. -- our efforts to visit with wounded patients have been severely restricted. For example, all requests to visit patients must now be made through headquarters, which then selects the patients we may visit and strictly limits information about the patients. Even the patient's name and the nature of the injury are withheld without express permission."

All contact with patients is closely monitored, he adds. "This is particularly unnerving and inappropriate, as all conversations between a representative and client are confidential in nature.

"The American public would be outraged if these restrictions become public knowledge."

Without going into the accuracy of that last statement -- the public currently is working up outrage only for things like flying breasts at the Super Bowl -- Gorman's letter has so far brought no response from Rumsfeld, nor has the copy sent to George W. Bush. But Autry said this week there has been a response from an official at Walter Reed, promising to schedule some briefings.

"It's a positive step," Autry said. "It's really a shame we had to go through this process to get even that."

The shame hasn't yet even begun to spread. It's one thing to make a major misstep in Iraq; it's quite another to try to stiff the young people whose lives will never be the same because of it.

As Gorman told CBS in December, "I think that the military wants to get them off their hands."

Still, the greatest shame is that America has the full capability to care for all its veterans, but the White House is too busy cutting taxes for people making more than $200,000 a year.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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