May 27, 2008 – Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Begich today expressed outrage at comments made this weekend by Senator Ted Stevens and Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary James Peake. At events in Alaska over Memorial Day weekend, Stevens warned of a “mass exodus” from the military if the 21st Century GI Bill goes into law without major changes. In addition, Peake spoke of the over diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), attaching a stigma to PTSD that the mental health and veterans community have worked hard to remove.
“What Stevens and the Bush Administration said this weekend was unfounded and disappointing,” Begich said. “While Stevens had his college education fully paid for after serving in WWII, he now wants to hold today’s veterans hostage by not offering them full college benefits. Our veterans deserve care and support for their service, but Stevens and the Bush administration prefer to deny them those benefits.”
Begich supports the G.I. Bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb and 57 other senators that extends educational benefits for all service members, including activated National Guard and Reservists, who serve at least three months of active duty since 9/11. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released statistics this month showing any potential decrease in reenlistment would be offset by a 16 percent increase in new recruits. Further, the CBO stated recruiting costs could be decreased by the potential incentive of an increase in educational benefits for veterans.
Peake was confirmed as Secretary of the VA in December 2007. Since then, Congress has held multiple hearings to investigate the treatment of PTSD by the VA and the high rate of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan . The nonprofit Rand Corporation released a study this year showing 20 percent of recent retuning veterans suffer from either PTSD or depression, yet only about half receive treatment.
Then last month CBS News released internal VA emails which appeared to show that the VA lied about the number of veterans attempting suicide and instructed health providers to under diagnose PTSD. One of the emails released put the number of suicide attempts at 1,000 a month, as opposed to the VA claim of more than 800 a year.
“Stevens traveled this weekend with a VA Secretary who is out of touch with the veterans he is supposed to serve. Peake’s comments show a profound lack of understanding of PTSD. PTSD is a serious injury that requires the same attention as any physical wound. Peake’s comments reveal the mindset that allows his VA to instruct caregivers to avoid diagnosing PTSD in order to save money,” Begich added.