Help Those Who Served

The Buffalo News

March 7, 2008 – Three trillion dollars — a controversial number expected by one prominent economist to be the low side of the real cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — is a statistic.

One troubled veteran of those wars — such as the one who looked out at us from the front page of Monday’s Buffalo News — is a tragedy.

As explained by, among others, News reporter Lou Michel, the facilities and services set up by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to deal with the financial, physical and emotional needs of returning veterans is already showing signs of breaking down.

That is a far greater problem than the apparent lack of tactical planning for the aftermath of the wars themselves, as historic as those goof-ups were. But it is also a problem that can be faced head-on by the federal government, if the people and their elected officials only will demand it.

Noble Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is out with a controversial new book titled “The Three Trillion Dollar War.” In it, he and his co-author, Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, calculate that, rather than the $2 billion sticker price American taxpayers were promised before the invasion of Iraq five years ago this month, the actual foreseeable cost stands to be at least $3 trillion, and will likely reach as high as $7 trillion. (Little is said about the administration’s side promise that the war would pay for itself, with still dreamed-of oil revenues from a free and peaceful Iraq covering all bets.)

One key reason for the difference, beyond the fact that the wars are lasting years longer than their planners and perhaps even their opponents imagined, is that nobody figured in the ongoing costs of caring for and, in many cases, permanently supporting disabled veterans of those and other conflicts associated with the Wide World of War.

Veterans Affairs managers in Western New York, and across the nation, are said to be staffing up for the expected onslaught of broken warriors — otherwise known as our friends, neighbors and relatives. But even with significantly larger budgets and increasing staff, veterans in need of both physical care and mental therapy are told to wait, and wait, and wait some more for everything from brain scans to psychological counseling.

Those who don’t get what they need don’t just suffer in silence. They cause pain to their families, burn through their savings, down large amounts of drugs — prescribed or otherwise — and, all too often, die, of neglect or by their own hand.

Winning the war in Iraq depends on many things beyond the control of the American people and their government, including such factors as the moods of rival militia leaders and the presidents of neighboring theocracies.

Winning the peace on the home front is our responsibility alone. If we fail, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

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