#VBA

How well do Americans know their Defense budget?

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The US spends more than the next 9 countries combined when it comes to defence. What is probably lost on many Americans is the spiraling cost of funding the veterans who served. The US is forecast in 2020 to spend almost as much on the Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) as China does on military spending. The direct cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has driven the indirect costs of treating those who served almost 5-fold since the war began. US politicians have passed increase after increase.  Have these increases been thought of in context of the trend? Or do annual increases just get signed off as a reflex action?

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If we put the VA budget next to the defence budget, the former has grown from 14.8% of the latter to around 29% between 2000 and 2020. The number of veterans receiving disability compensation has grown 2 million in 2000 to 4.3 million in 2016. A total of 7.2 million veterans are actively seeking services or payments from the VA, up from 5.5 million in 2000.

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Spending per veteran by priority group also reveals sharply higher costs. This is not an exhaustive list of priorities, but the main 7.

Priority 1

• Veterans with VA-rated service-connected disabilities 50% or more disabling
• Veterans determined by VA to be unemployable due to service-connected conditions.

Priority 2

• Veterans with VA-rated service-connected disabilities 30% or 40% disabling

Priority 3

• Veterans who are Former Prisoners of War (POWs)
• Veterans awarded a Purple Heart medal
• Veterans whose discharge was for a disability that was incurred or aggravated in the line of duty
• Veterans with VA-rated service-connected disabilities 10% or 20% disabling
• Veterans awarded special eligibility classification under Title 38, U.S.C., § 1151, “benefits for individuals disabled by treatment or vocational rehabilitation
• Veterans awarded the Medal Of Honor (MOH)

Priority 4

• Veterans who are receiving aid and attendance or housebound benefits from VA
• Veterans who have been determined by VA to be catastrophically disabled

Priority 5

• Non service-connected Veterans and non-compensable service-connected Veterans rated 0% disabled by VA with annual income below the VA’s and geographically (based on your resident zip code) adjusted income limits
• Veterans receiving VA pension benefits
• Veterans eligible for Medicaid programs

Priority 6

• Compensable 0% service-connected Veterans.
• Veterans exposed to ionizing radiation during atmospheric testing or during the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
• Project 112/SHAD participants.
• Veterans who served in the Republic of Vietnam between January 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975.
• Veterans of the Persian Gulf War who served between August 2, 1990, and November 11, 1998.
• Veterans who served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.
• Currently enrolled Veterans and new enrollees who served in a theater of combat operations after November 11, 1998 and those who were discharged from active duty on or after January 28, 2003, are eligible for the enhanced benefits for five years post discharge.

Priority 7

• Veterans with gross household income below the geographically-adjusted income limits for their resident location and who agree to pay copays.

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Countries have an obligation to look after the troops that sustain injury, physical, mental or otherwise. The question is whether politicians are cottoning on to the mounting relative increase in healing the veteran community to the spending on weapons of war?

There are 19.6 million veterans in the US. By 2045 this is expected to dip below 12 million. With 2.1 million serving active duty military personnel and reserves, the overall costs of healing may not come down anytime soon.

What it does say is that there is a massive need to work out how to reduce the costs to the VA without impeding improving healthcare and benefits for veterans.

Banned documentary – Let There Be Light, 1946

In compiling the book of letters from the battlefields of WWII by Lt. Norman Peterson, researching PTSD in that era has unearthed some interesting facts. A documentary made by John Huston in 1946, which chronicled the treatment of troops suffering from neuro-psychiatric conditions, was banned by the Army from release to the public until 1981. The excuse made was that it was necessary to protect the identity of the patients, despite Huston having received signed waivers. It would seem the top brass did not want to have the extent of the problem acknowledged by the broader public.

The first published book related to what we now know as PTSD was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of 1952. It listed the condition as “gross stress reaction.” It wasn’t until 1980 that PTSD was properly recognized as a psychological issue. After WWII, veterans were told to just tough it out.

WWII British Army veteran, Victor Gregg, wrote the following in The Telegraph newspaper article on 9th November 2015 with respect to PTSD like conditions.

“I remember one day during the Battle of Alamein when my friend Frankie Batt, a man I had enlisted with in 1937, was blown to pieces. I recall trying in vain to put the bits together, to somehow bring Frankie back to life. As I picked up what was left of him I could feel the hate burning inside me. For the next three or four weeks our section never brought in a single prisoner, in spite of the fact that the battle was nearly over and the enemy were surrendering in droves. So long as no officer was there to witness, we shot as many as we could until our anger died its own death…by the time I got home I had witnessed things that I had not thought possible, and my brain was filled with images of suffering that were to haunt me for the next forty years…When I was demobbed, people didn’t talk about what was going on in their minds. It just was not the done thing; you straightened your shoulders and got on with life. The men who did try to raise the subject were treated with scorn…It was only after many years that I realised how much heartache and misery my anger caused to those I loved. 

The Cambridge History of the First World War contains an article by Jay Winter, Professor of History at Yale University, where he suggested that shell shock in WWI comprised around 20% of all troops, not the 5% often reported. His contention was that the truth was deliberately suppressed otherwise sufferers would not have received a disability pension if not accompanied by physical wounds.

In 1993, MA Kidson, JC & BJ Holwill wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia a piece titled, ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder in Australian World War II veterans attending a psychiatric outpatient clinic’. Out of 108 veterans who participated in the study 45% were shown to carry symptoms of PTSD – as defined by DSM-III – 48 years after it had ended. The study claimed, The presence of PTSD was significantly associated with the taking of casualties (an indicator of severity of war stress as reported by the veterans themselves) and with combat stress as rated by their treating doctors.”

A 2007-08 study at the University Michigan looked at 78 WWII veterans being treated for depression and discovered that 38% of them had significant PTSD symptoms.

Dr. Helen Kales, principal investigator of the geriatric psychiatry section at the University of Michigan wrote,

World War II veterans come from a generation in which expressing psychological symptoms or distress was pretty stigmatized. So these cases may have gone untreated as the vets did not seek treatment and were able to somehow suppress their symptoms and function.

Reading into Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) reveals even more concerns about the problems we face dealing with returning soldiers.

While PTSD does not necessarily require physical damage to occur, TBI, in the military, tends to occur when exposed to blast-related injuries such as artillery, improvised explosive devices (IED), land mines and rock-propelled grenades (RPG).

TBI can be the result of occurrences where an object (bullet, bomb fragments) causes the scalp/skull to break or fracture. Sometimes it is a closed injury where the outside force impacts the head but no objects manage to penetrate. Even in the case of closed injuries, the brain can experience such considerable force that it can result in torn tissues, bleeding and other physical damage which can be irreversible in severe cases.

TBI was better recognized in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) where 1.64 million served. 60% of blast injuries in those conflicts resulted in TBI. According to the US Veteran Affairs (VA), 59,000 (c.10%) Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who used the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) from 2009 to 2011 were diagnosed with TBI.

VA now records that 4.3mn receive disability benefits, up 2mn from 2000. The total budget for the VA in 2019 will total $198.6bn, up from $97.7bn in 2009. It was $43.6bn in 2000. The VA is asking for $212bn for 2020. The VA budget relative to the defense spending budget was 14% in 2000. It is now 30%. The cost of war is obscene. The cost of looking after veterans is hot on defence spending heels.