Seven Questions: Supporting the Veterans
Memorial Day carries special significance as U.S. soldiers continue to fight in Iraq. FP spoke to Jon Soltz of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America political action committee, which supports veterans running for U.S. Congress.
FP: What are you hearing from soldiers in Iraq?
FP: What are you hearing from soldiers in Iraq?
JS: The best data are a recent Zogby poll, which showed that 75 percent of soldiers in Iraq dont know of a clear strategy for victory there. I think tactically the soldiers have performed brilliantlyfrom adapting to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to dealing with sheiksand trying to do a mission they havent trained for in the last 25 to 30 years. Strategically, there are tremendous issues. The amount of military force required in Iraq has broken the Army, and specifically the National Guard and Reserves.
FP: How would you rate the administrations policies relating to veterans?
JS: The veteran who walks into the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA) today is drastically worse off than he or she was four or five years ago. They pay more for their prescription drugs. There is now a fee for them to enroll into the system. Iraq war veterans put a tremendous demand on the VA, specifically because weve deployed so many members of the Guard and Reserves. Theres also a problem with diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of people with PTSD get diagnosed with adjustment disorder primarily because theres not enough money in the VA budget to provide these heroes with the disability payments they should be given.
FP: Why are so many Iraq war veterans in debt?
JS: If youre making $80,000 a year in the civilian world and then you get called up and make $25,000 or $30,000 fighting in Iraq, you take a tremendous hit. There is some legislation supported by Sen. Evan Bayh to end the patriot penalty. It would help families make up that difference.
Theres also the problem of insurance scams on military bases. [Insurance salespeople] try to get 19- or 20-year-old kidswho dont know a lot about financeto buy life insurance and mutual funds that charge high fees. When soldiers come home, many of them have a lot of money from their deployment because they had nothing to spend it on, and they end up being targeted by loan sharks.
FP: Most of the veterans running in the 2006 election cycle are Democrats. Does that indicate a larger trend among returning veterans?
JS: Weve endorsed both Republican and Democratic veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan for congress. We endorse people who support a victory strategy in Iraq and want to fund the VA. There are more Democrats running, and that goes to the trend were seeing across the country right now. Just as when you saw the generals speak out against Rumsfeld, I think theres a feeling among the men and women who fought on the ground in Iraq that the leadership has been poor. But Republicans have not done a lot to recruit veterans of the Iraq war into politics, and neither have Democrats. Thats why were here, to give these troops the support they need.
FP: Is victory in Iraq possible?
JS: I think anything is winnable in military terms. But the larger issue weve had since the minute we hit the ground in Iraq is that we dont know what success is. Thats something the president needs to outline to his troops. He has to quantify success: how many Iraqi units were going to train, how many elections were going to oversee, and how much its going to cost to buy off the Sunni leadership and get the Shia to disband their militias. And when he does that, well see if we can get to success.
FP: What about Afghanistan?
JS: Were starting to see some of the tactics developed in Iraq being used in Afghanistan. IEDswhich they did not have in Afghanistan beforehave moved from Iraq into Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, and American forces should be in Afghanistan until he is captured. Until then, I expect there to be a certain amount of violence there. We still have 16,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that mission needs to continue so we can reprimand the people who attacked this country.
FP: When we think of homeless veterans, we often think of Vietnam veterans. But there are reports of a large homelessness problem among Iraq veterans. Why is that?
JS: When a soldier goes to the VA and his arm is broken, you can fix it. You can give him disability for a broken arm, a busted leg, or a messed-up back. But when you go to the VA after being off active duty for six months and you realize that youre depressedyouve got anxiety, you cant sleep at night, and your marriage is falling apartthey cannot give you a blood test to see if you have PTSD. Right now there are hundreds and hundreds of Iraq war veterans who have gone to Department of Defense psychiatrists and been coded with adjustment disorder. So they do not get disability. If they did get disability, they would get enough money to help them through their depression.
There are hundreds of Iraq veterans who have gone to private psychiatrists who have diagnosed them with PTSD, yet the VA says they have adjustment disorder. And thats because the VA has not been fully funded by the Bush administration to address this new demand for PTSD treatment. It equates to turning their backs on the same people they sent to war. And thats why we have homeless veterans. Homelessness is a symptom of a larger issue. Whether its beating your wife, suicide, or homelessness, it all comes back to this nasty word called PTSD.
Jon Soltz is executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America political action committee. He has served in Iraq and Kosovo.
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