AMATO: Shameful story of ingratitude

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COMMENTARY:

A tremendously important story has gone virtually untold by the media, ignored by our political leaders and unknown to the American public. Despite the extraordinarily high price they have paid, America’s severely wounded veterans are enduring humiliating financial hardships of epic proportions. Home evictions, utility shutoffs, car repossessions and foreclosures are commonplace.

Spouses have to give up their jobs to become caregivers, cutting family incomes by up to 50 percent or more. Most disabled vets receive much less in compensation and benefits than they did while on active duty, reducing incomes even further. Many are too dysfunctional to hold a meaningful job, if any, because of the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Kim Tanner and his wife are prime examples. Mr. Tanner worked as a truck driver while serving with the Army, often driving 12 to 14 hours a day delivering weapons and supplies throughout Iraq. The effects of numerous blasts from exploding roadside bombs have left him suffering from severe PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. He was discharged with a 50 percent disability rating.

Today he lives with memory loss, speech impairment and hearing loss. He is unable to work long periods of time at his part-time post-office job.

His wife has given up her job as a bus driver to be his full-time caregiver. Before his injury, they earned $7,000 a month together. Today their combined monthly income is a paltry $800.

“We rely on charities and the kindness of others to get by,” Mrs. Tanner told me. “We would have lost our home and our car by now if it weren’t for charities.” Many others are not so “lucky.” She continues, “It’s embarrassing to ask others for help. It doesn’t seem right after Kim sacrificed so much. It is really tough.”

Defense Department doctors say up to 360,000 war-on-terror veterans suffer TBI alone. According to the Rand Corp. study, there also are 300,000 PTSD cases. Yet the Department of Veterans Affairs says just 8,000 TBI cases are in treatment. I could not get numbers for PTSD. The VA’s resources are stretched and overburdened, which contributes to the small treatment numbers.

Referral for treatment at government expense to private centers, many of which show promising results, needs to become a bigger part of the solution. The Virtual Reality Center in San Diego, which has systems at Balboa Naval Hospital and Camp Lejeune, has a treatment success rate of 80 percent for PTSD compared to just 30 percent for usual care.

A recent U.S. News & World Report cover story, “Cheating and Shortchanging,” claims the Pentagon deliberately underrates disabilities in order to reduce the compensation payments to veterans. Military officials instead blame a system that is complicated, outdated and ambiguous. Deliberate or not, the practice can cost a disabled veteran hundreds of thousands of dollars in income over his or her lifetime.

A Congress that thinks nothing of spending trillions on bailouts and stimulus packages has mostly turned a deaf ear on our severely disabled vets. The $787 billion stimulus, for example, contains $8 billion for a boondoggle train to be built from Disneyland to Las Vegas, enough to provide proper financial support and treatment to more than 250,000 disabled veterans for a year.

Make no mistake about it, the underfunding of care for our severely disabled vets is a national disgrace. Equally outrageous is that not a single reform recommendation of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors was adopted by Congress. Why? And why did the two commission co-chairmen, former Sen. Robert Dole and former Cabinet member Donna Shalala essentially walk away from their own report, as did the George W. Bush administration itself?

Though obviously there is no simple solution, perhaps the best way to start would be for the president to appoint a “disability czar” responsible for pulling together and coordinating all necessary parties, including Congress, to fix the problem.

The two most urgent requirements are to provide standard-of-living monthly income supplements to all qualifying disabled vets and to evaluate and make readily available cutting-edge treatment for PTSD- and TBI-afflicted vets.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Until our politicians feel the heat, they won’t see the light.” The time has come for citizens to demand that Congress put bailing out America’s severely wounded warriors at the top of its priority list. Until they do, America’s shameful untold story will only continue to get worse. Contact your member of Congress and put him or her on notice. That’s the very least any of us can do for those who gave so much and ask so little.

Rick Amato is a radio talk-show host in San Diego and with Washington Times Radio News. Amato Strategic Communications provides consulting services to nonprofit organizations, including veterans causes.

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