When young American men and women sign up to serve in the U.S. military, our government makes them a basic promise: If they are wounded in the line of duty, they will get the care they need. Unfortunately, for tens of thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s a promise that only exists on paper.
On Feb. 18, 2007, the headline “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army’s Top Medical Facility” was splashed across the front page of one of the nation’s top newspapers, the Washington Post. The article, which described unsafe conditions and substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, began with the story of Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, who was airlifted out of Iraq in February 2006 with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, “nearly dead from blood loss.”
“Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold,” the article read. “When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.”
The Washington Post’s coverage of the scandal at Walter Reed sparked outrage and finger-pointing around Washington’s official circles, but the controversy did not solve the problem of substandard care. Eight months later, in September, Sergeant GJ Cassidy died while receiving treatment for blast injuries at Fort Knox. A GAO report released at the time of his death showed half of the military’s Warrior Transition Units had “significant shortfalls” of doctors, nurses and other caregivers to treat wounded soldiers.
It’s not known how many other soldiers have died the way GJ Cassidy did—alone while allegedly seeking medical care from his government. But we do know that veterans of the Iraq war are taking their own lives as the Pentagon and the VA fail to provide adequate medical care.
A CBS News investigation in November found that 120 veterans kill themselves every week, adding up to over 6,000 per year. CBS asked all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records for veterans and non-veterans, and found that veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide [as] those who had not gone to war. Among those taking their own lives was Sergeant Brian Jason Rand, who served two tours in Iraq. On February 20, 2007, the Clarksville, Tennessee, police department found his body lying face down under an entertainment pavilion on the banks of the Cumberland River, a shotgun lying beside it.
Then there are those who become homeless because of government inaction. On any given night, 200,000 veterans sleep homeless on the street. Increasingly those veterans are younger men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
People like Specialist James Eggemeyer, who ended up homeless just a few months after returning home from Iraq with a severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggered by loading the bodies of dead Iraqis into a Blackhawk helicopter. The VA took so long to process Eggemeyer’s disability claim that he had to live out of his truck while he waited. The average wait time for a veteran’s disability claim to be decided is now 183 days. More than 600,000 disabled vets are currently waiting.
Tens of thousands more veterans are also being denied medical care and disability benefits they were promised after serving abroad.
The numbers are staggering: 11,407 U.S. soldiers have been discharged for drug abuse after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; 6,159 have been kicked out of the military for “discreditable incidents”; 6,436 have been discharged for “commission of a serious offense”; 2,246 have been discharged for “the good of the service”; and 3,365 have been discharged for “personality disorder,” according to Pentagon data I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Among those dishonorably discharged after honorably serving in Iraq is Specialist Shaun Manuel, who returned from a tour in Iraq to find [his son] dead of a rare genetic disease called Muscular Spinal Atrophy. Manuel said the situation was made even more painful when his superiors ordered him to begin training for a second tour in Iraq.
“My son passed away,” he told me. “You gonna send an emotionally distressed soldier to Iraq—who knows what he’s going to do? I’m ready to just blow the whole world up because I didn’t see my son being born and then he just passed away on me with no warning.”
Manuel never filed paperwork to medically excuse him from deployment. Instead, he withdrew and buried himself in alcohol. He estimates he drank three fifths of liquor a day. At one point, his wife had to call the police during a domestic disturbance. So the military expelled him with dishonorable discharge and now bars him from getting health care and disability benefits.
Even those who haven’t seen combat can be in for a fight. Private Durrell Michael threw out his back loading generators on a US military base in South Korea. He could barely walk or stand upright, but the Army tried to deploy him to Iraq anyway. When he fought back, they gave him a dishonorable discharge. Now, he’s in another fight: with the VA for medical care.
Independent journalist Aaron Glantz is author of the book “How America Lost Iraq” (Tarcher/Penguin) and editor of the Web site www.warcomeshome.org, a project of KPFA Radio.