VA official: More than 60,000 Iraq, Afghanistan vets diagnosed with PTSD
By Jason Leopold
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Mar 6, 2008, 01:09
Jonathan Schulze was awarded two Purple Hearts in 2005 after
a lengthy tour of duty in Iraq.
But the Marine veteran couldn't escape the war inside his
Drugs and alcohol temporarily numbed his pain. Yet the guilt
he carried around with him having been one of a handful of soldiers in his unit
to survive combat was impossible to run away from.
Schulze was suicidal.
On January 11, 2007, he sought treatment for post traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD). His parents drove him to the VA hospital in St. Cloud,
Schulze told the VA staff that he "felt suicidal,"
his mother, Marianne Schulze, recalled.
The hospital didn't admit him. Instead, he was told to call
back the following day. He did. He was given a number: 26. The VA staff told
him he'd have to wait at least two weeks to be admitted. Apparently, there were
other veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were also suffering from
PTSD. It's unknown whether they met the same fate.
On January 16, 2007, Schulze placed a framed photograph of
his one-year-old daughter beside him. He wrapped an electrical cord around his
neck and hanged himself in the basement of a friend's house in New Prague,
Minnesota. He was 25 years old.
This week, Schulze's story is being retold in a federal
courthouse in San Francisco as evidence of the widespread, systemic failures by
the Veterans Administration to treat tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan
war veterans who suffer PTSD.
Attorneys for two veterans advocacy organizations are hoping
to convince a judge that a lawsuit filed against the Department for Veterans
Affairs last year and several government officials associated with the VA
should receive class-action status. In their lawsuit, Veterans for Common Sense
and Veterans United for Truth, which represent about 12,000 veterans combined,
claim Iraq and Afghanistan war vets are dying while waiting for the VA to treat
PTSD and work through a backlog of at least half-million disability claims. The
groups want U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti to issue a
preliminary injunction to force the VA to immediately treat veterans who show
signs of PTSD and are at risk of suicide.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person
who witnesses, or is confronted with, a traumatic event. PTSD is said to be the
most prevalent mental disorder arising from combat. According to the lawsuit,
�more than any previous war, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to
produce a high percentage of troops suffering from PTSD,� due to the widespread
use of improvised explosive devises, multiple rotations, the ambiguity of
fighting combatants dressed as civilians, and the use of National Guard members
In their complaint, the plaintiffs' attorneys allege that
numerous VA practices stemming from a 1998 law violate the constitutional and
statutory rights of veterans suffering from PTSD by denying veterans mandated
"Because of those failures, hundreds of thousands of
men and women who have suffered grievous injuries fighting in the ongoing wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan are being abandoned," states the lawsuit filed in
U.S. District Court for Northern California. "Unless systemic and drastic
measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their
families, and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new
generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and
alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system and other
social services in our communities."
VA attorneys had argued in court papers filed last month
that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were not "entitled" to the five
years of free healthcare upon their return from combat as mandated by Congress
in the "Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act." Rather, the VA argued,
medical treatment for the war veterans was discretionary based on the level of
funding available in the VA's budget.
On Tuesday, the second day of testimony before Judge Conti,
Dr. Gerald Cross, the undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health
Administration, made a startling admission during cross-examination by the
plaintiffs' attorneys that would appear to contradict the agency's position.
Cross admitted that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were
not only entitled to free healthcare, "there is no co-pay," he said.
Perhaps most startling, however, was testimony by Cross
stating that of the 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars treated
at VA hospitals, more than half were diagnosed with a serious mental condition,
68,000 of which were cases of PTSD.
His testimony marks the first time a Bush administration
official has provided detailed information about the psychological impact of
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on combat veterans. Cross testified that five
years after the invasion of Iraq, the VA has still not completed a study on the
link between suicides and PTSD among combat veterans. However, he said such a
study is currently in the works and may be published soon.
Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common
Sense, Paul Sullivan, said more than 5,000 veterans commit suicide per year.
Dr. Arthur Blank, a renowned expert on PTSD who has worked
closely with the VA, testified that about 30 percent of Iraqi war veterans are
likely suffering from PTSD due to multiple deployments and the VA is not doing
enough to care for them.
"I think it's because of multiple deployments, which
means one is exposed to trauma over and over again," Blank testified.
Last week, Daniel Cooper, the VA's undersecretary for
benefits, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, abruptly resigned.
Sullivan's group had called for Cooper's resignation two weeks ago in light of
the huge backlog of benefits claims that have yet to be processed by Cooper's
Last August, the Pentagon's inspector general revealed that
Cooper used his government position to promote the work of a fundamentalist
Christian organization, a violation of the laws governing the separation of
church and state.
Cooper, and several high-ranking military officials,
appeared in a promotional video for Christian Embassy, an evangelical
organization that evangelizes members of the military and politicians in
Washington, DC, via daily Bible studies and outreach events. The group holds
prayer breakfasts on Wednesdays in the Pentagon's executive dining room,
according to the organization's web site.
Mikey Weinstein, the founder and president of The Military
Religious Freedom Foundation, whose organization called for a federal
investigation after government officials were discovered to have participated
in the Christian Embassy promotional video, said Cooper is a
"The D in Dan stands for disgrace," Weinstein said
in an interview. "He's a disgrace to the United States Naval Academy, the
United States Navy, the US armed forces, the Veterans Administration, and the
United States of America. Why? Because we have him on videotape making it very
clear to the world that the most important part of his job was to push the
fundamentalist agenda of the Christian right over his specified duties at the
Veterans Administration. Dan Cooper has used the United States Constitution as
his personal roll of toilet paper. I wish him as much good fortune as he has
provided to our honorable and noble veterans; none."
Leopold is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a
memoir. Mr. Leopold is also a two-time winner of the Project Censored award,
most recently, in 2007, for an investigative story related to Halliburton's
work in Iran.
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