One of the many applause lines in Michelle Obama's speech to the Democratic National Convention last night came when she said her husband would work to make sure health benefits - including mental health benefits - would be extended to all veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. That would no doubt help stem the epidemic of suicides currently afflicting veterans returning from Iraq, but any plan to ease wounded soldiers' transition from military care to Veterans Administration/civilian care must include an overhaul of the way soldiers apply for and recieve their benefits.
As Linda Bilmes and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Steiglitz point out in their book The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, a disabled veteran bears the entire burden of proving to the Veterans Administration that he or she is not only disabled but that the disability occurred as a result of his or her active duty in the United States military - and this is often after that veteran has spent several months before discharge being treated by the military for that very same disability! (That's an NPR interview with Bilmes on the other end of that link; the transcript is unavailable, but take a few minutes to listen to it - it's astonishing.) Veterans must gather all appropriate documentation from every medical professional involved in their treatment and present it to the VA in order for their claims to be processed. This is a paper-based system, and as you can imagine it is currently overloaded. As of March, the date of the NPR interview with Bilmes I link to above, this process took about six months. If there is an error, or the veteran in question wishes to appeal the VA's decision for whatever reason, the process stretches out to two years. Two years is a hell of a long time to ask someone suffering from severe PTSD to wait for treatment; is it any wonder we're seeing record suicide rates among soldiers returning from Iraq?
Bilmes recommends that we switch to a system similar to the one employed by Canada and Great Britain; in those systems, the veteran's claim is assumed to be genuine and the burden of proving otherwise, if necessary, falls to the government. It's basically the same system the IRS uses here in the States - as Bilmes points out, the vast majority of tax claims are assumed to be genuine and a only a small subset of claims gets audited in order to discourage fraud. In other words, returning veterans' disability claims should be given at least as much credibility as Dick Cheney's tax return.
That's a brilliant first step, and I'd recommend an additional reform: in our information age, in which TRW has a record of every time I've scratched my ass during the past five years, it couldn't be too difficult to establish a paralell electronic service record between the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration that begins the moment a volunteer musters in to the service. That way, the VA would already have all of the records it needs to process a veteran's claim on the day he or she is discharged from the service.
With all the talk recently about United States troops withdrawing completely from Iraq by 2011, now is the time to lay the groundwork for an improved system that will help those returning soldiers re-integrate into civilain life as smoothly as possible.
(X-posted at Pax Americana)