Data Suggests Vast Costs Loom in Disability Claims

New York Times

Nearly one in five soldiers leaving the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has been at least partly disabled as a result of service, according to documents of the Department of Veterans Affairs obtained by a Washington research group.

The number of veterans granted disability compensation, more than 100,000 to date, suggests that taxpayers have only begun to pay the long-term financial cost of the two conflicts. About 567,000 of the 1.5 million American troops who have served so far have been discharged.

“The trend is ominous,” said Paul Sullivan, director of programs for Veterans for America, an advocacy group, and a former V.A. analyst.

Mr. Sullivan said that if the current proportions held up over time, 400,000 returning service members could eventually apply for disability benefits when they retired.

About 2.6 million veterans were receiving disability compensation as of 2005, according to testimony to Congress by the V.A. The largest group of recipients is from the Vietnam era. Of the 1.1 million who served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, 291,740 have been granted disability compensation.

The documents on the current conflicts provide no details on the type of disabilities claimed by veterans. Most were found to be 30 percent disabled or less, and one in 10 recipients was found to be 100 percent disabled. Payments run from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 a month depending on the severity of the disability.

A separate V.A. health care report shows that the most common treatments sought by recently discharged troops are for musculoskeletal disorders like back pain, followed by mental disorders, notably post traumatic stress disorder. About 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought treatment for post traumatic stress, which afflicts soldiers who have been under fire or in prolonged danger of attack.

A V.A. spokesman, Terry Jemison, said “service-related” disabilities could include an amputation as the result of a bomb injury or a case of diabetes or heart disease that was first diagnosed or found to get worse while in uniform. Mr. Jemison said officials had no cost projections for disability payments to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The documents were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The documents show that 37 percent of active duty veterans have filed for disability compensation, compared with 20 percent of those who served with National Guard or Reserve units. Also, 18 percent of claims filed by Guard and Reserve soldiers are denied, compared with 8 percent of those filed by active duty troops.

The report offered no explanation for the differences, but veterans’ advocates said efforts to explain V.A. procedures might be better for those leaving active duty than those offered to reservists.

“The Guard and reservists may be falling through the cracks at a higher rate,” said Joseph A. Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans. “The V.A. needs to study why there’s a difference.”

Mr. Violante, a Vietnam veteran, said young soldiers returning from war often shrugged off their injuries and did not necessarily seek compensation right away. “But as they get older,” he said, “and their injuries cause them more problems, then they’re more likely to file.”

In recent years, disability compensation programs have seen a number of changes that are likely to increase the filing of claims by veterans.

Congress told the V.A. last year to advertise the availability of compensation to veterans in states where payments had been disproportionately low, a program that the agency has predicted will attract nearly 100,000 new applicants.

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