New veterans fight new battles after coming home

By Marilynn Marchione

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 27 2012 10:25 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE MONDAY, MAY 28, 2012 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this May 1969 file photo, a wounded U.S. paratrooper of the 101 st Airborne Division is helped through a blinding rainstorm by two medics after being evacuated from Dong Ap Bia during the 10-day battle for Hamburger Hill. America has a new generation of veterans. More than 1.6 million troops are back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new veterans join more than 20 million others from previous wars. There also are 34 million spouses and dependent children of living veterans and survivors of dead veterans, and many of them get benefits, too. Collectively, they comprise a whopping 18 percent of the U.S. population. (By comparison, Medicare beneficiaries make up 15 percent).

Hugh Van Es, Associated Press

America has a new generation of veterans. More than 1.6 million troops are back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are unlike any other group of veterans the nation has ever seen.

More of them are Reserves and National Guard. More are women. They have different injuries than those who fought before them. And nearly half of them are seeking benefits for service-related disabilities. Claims are being filed faster than the government can process them. The average wait to get a new claim handled is about eight months.

Here's what The Associated Press found:

WHO CAME HOME

So far, 1,615,136 troops have left active duty and become veterans since the wars began. About 54 percent are getting health care through the VA; only 40 percent did after Vietnam and World War II. That means taxpayers are providing more support.

About 12 percent of recent veterans seeking VA care are women; 8 percent of veterans overall are women.

WAR'S COST, IN FINGERS AND TOES

The good news: Body armor and better field care have allowed troops to survive wounds that proved fatal in previous wars. The not-so-good part: Many survivors have serious injuries.

Of the recent veterans treated by the VA, more than 1,600 have lost a limb; many more have lost fingers and toes. Thousands are disfigured, as many as 200 so badly that they may need a face transplant.

INVISIBLE WOUNDS

Tens of thousands have suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. Most are mild concussions that get better within a few months. But serious ones and multiple concussions can raise the risk of dementia and other problems.

Mental health is a big concern. More than half of the new veterans who have sought care through the VA were diagnosed with a mental disorder. In more than 217,000 cases it was post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. Nearly 165,000 were diagnosed with depression.

DISABILITY CLAIMS

A record number of new veterans are seeking compensation for service-related disabilities. So far, 45 percent have filed claims, more than double the 21 percent that did after some other recent wars.

They are claiming 8.5 ailments on average; Vietnam veterans claimed less than four, and World War II veterans, about two.

It's a long wait for an answer: About 60 percent of claims were backlogged more than 125 days last year, up from 36 percent of claims the year before. Accurate determinations were made in only 77 to 84 percent of cases, according to two different government estimates.

THE BIG PICTURE

The new veterans join more than 20 million others from previous wars. There also are 34 million spouses and dependent children of living veterans and survivors of dead veterans, and many of them get benefits, too. Collectively, they comprise a whopping 18 percent of the U.S. population. (By comparison, Medicare beneficiaries make up 15 percent).

Last year, compensation benefits were paid to 3,354,700 veterans and to 355,500 surviving spouses and children. The VA also paid pensions to 313,700 veterans and 202,000 survivors.

TROUBLE AHEAD?

The cost of veterans' benefits and health care peaks decades after a war ends, says Harvard University economist Linda Bilmes. These peaked in 1969 for veterans from World War I and in the 1980s for World War II. They haven't peaked yet for Vietnam veterans.

Finances are likely to be even tighter 30 years from now when costs for the newest veterans are greatest, she said. Unless a special fund for them is started now, "It's quite plausible many people will feel we can't afford these benefits we overpromised," Bilmes warns.

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