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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Newsweek Cover: Failing Our Wounded

Recent revelations about the decay and mismanagement at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., were especially shocking because it is one of the most prestigious U.S. military hospitals. But a Newsweek investigation--which focused not on one facility but on the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling 235,000-person bureaucracy--found that the VA system is unprepared for the scope of the task at hand and ahead.

Around 50,000 service members so far have been banged up or burned, lost limbs or sacrificed something less tangible inside them in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a new study projects that at least 700,000 moreveterans from the global war on terror will flood the system in the coming years. In the March 5 cover story, "Failing Our Wounded" (on newsstands Monday, February 26), national security correspondent Dan Ephron and Assistant Editor Sarah Childress paint a grim portrait of an overloaded bureaucracy cluttered with red tape; veterans having to wait weeks or months for mental-health care and other appointments; families sliding into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months, and the seriously wounded requiring help from outside experts just to understand the VA's arcane system of rights and benefits.

Tonia Sargent, whose husband, Kenneth--a Marine master sergeant who had been in the corps for nearly 18 years--nearly died in a sniper attack in Najaf in 2004, says no one ever sat her down and explained the benefits and how to access them. Her husband's brain injury made him often incapable of understanding his own care. Key decisions fell to her alone. It's a "don'task, don't tell system," she says. The Sargent's story, and the stories of many other veterans, is raising concerns that the United States is failing to meet its most basic obligations to those who fight its wars, Newsweek says.

"In no way do I diminish the fact that there are veterans out there who are coming in who require treatment and maybe are not getting the treatment they need," White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto tells Newsweek. "It's real and it exists."

Dr. Michael Kussman, the VA's acting under secretary for health tells Newsweek that the department is trying to reach veterans earlier, as they approach their date of discharge, and that he does not believe Iraq and Afghanistan are straining resources severely.

"The impact on the VA so far has been relatively small," Kussman says. "It has not kicked the system over in our budget and in our ability to absorb it."

But the number of veterans has to grow and critics worry the VA is in a state of denial. In a broad sense, Newsweek reports, the situation at the VA seems to mirror the overall lack of planning for the war. "We know the VA doesn't have the capacity to process a large number of disability claims at the same time," says Linda Bilmes, a Harvard public-finance professor who last month released a 34-page study on the long-term cost of caring for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans' support groups and even some former and current VA insiders believe there's a reluctance in the Bush administration to deal openly with the long-term costs of the war, Newsweek says.

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