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War without end
September 6, 2005
More should be done to help vets coming home from Iraq with mental health problems
It's a tale of two tragedies.
In Las Vegas, former Army soldier and Iraq combat veteran Matthew Sepi heads to a convenience store with an assault rifle tucked under his trench coat. An argument breaks out, Sepi opens fire and one person is dead, another wounded.
He now faces murder and attempted murder charges.
In Lawrence, Mass., former Marine Sgt. Daniel Cotnoir, who recovered the remains of soldiers blown up by roadside bombs in Iraq, erupts in anger when someone from a group of noisy nightclub patrons apparently throws a bottle at him.
He pulls out a 12-gauge shotgun, fires one shot into the crowd, and wounds two.
Now Cotnoir -- who was named Marine of the Year by the Marine Corps Times -- faces charges of attempted murder.
Family members and attorneys for the men say they know what made them snap:
Post-traumatic stress disorder, which left Sepi extremely nervous, paranoid and reduced to day labor work, and Cotnoir afflicted with nightmares, shakes and cold sweats.
The incidents are visible evidence of what experts say is an epidemic of PTSD and other mental health problems tormenting many Iraq veterans who are coming home and facing what for them is a war without end.
The Army's surgeon general has found that 30 percent of troops surveyed had developed stress-related mental health trouble within months of returning home, a number some experts suspect may be higher.
Despite this, the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't have the capability to meet the skyrocketing needs, and the Bush administration has been exhibiting a gross dereliction of duty by not properly funding programs to help these men and women.
Earlier this year, it tried to cut VA health care $1.5 billion in a deficit reduction move, before outraged veterans groups shamed lawmakers into allocating the money.
Without longterm funding hikes, there will be more pain and suffering among vets who become consumed by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and alcohol and drug abuse, and descents into joblessness, divorce and even suicide.
Two things need to happen:
There should be strong bipartisan support for legislation filed by U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., which calls for having every returning vet undergo a thorough psychological and physical exam.
That would identify problems early and get veterans immediately pointed toward the assistance they need.
But there also must be substantial multi-year funding increases to expand VA health care, with PTSD and other mental health programs major recipients of the aid.
A starting point should be at least the $3.5 billion suggested last week by Max Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War and former Democratic senator from Georgia who ran the VA under President Carter.
The White House is spending more than $5.8 billion a month fighting the Iraq war, with the ranks of the physically and psychologically wounded climbing daily.
The least President Bush can do is make substantially more veterans funding a top priority.
Anything less will be the equivalent of desertion.