WASHINGTON – The scandal whirling around care for soldiers and veterans took on new dimensions this week with revelations that National Guard and Reserve soldiers face discrimination in treatment and benefits, while severe backlogs exist in processing veterans’ disability claims.
Unequal treatment of wounded soldiers is an outrage that military and civilian leaders must act now to correct, Michael McPherson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace, said in a phone interview from VFP national offices in St. Louis.
McPherson was responding to a report in The New York Times March 9 that National Guard and Reserve soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan face longer waits and receive lower benefits than disabled veterans who retire from active duty in the armed forces.
“A soldier is a soldier,” said McPherson. “All of them are putting their lives on the line, whether they are active duty or National Guard or Reserve. There is a class structure here. It is up to the civilian leadership as well as the higher military echelons to insure equitable treatment.”
The charge of bias in treatment of wounded soldiers is a new twist in a scandal that has forced out the Secretary of the Army, the commander at Walter Reed Medical Center, and most recently, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.
McPherson, a U.S. Army veteran of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division in the 1980s, added, “There is a history of neglecting war veterans that goes all the way back to the American Revolution. It led to the Shays Rebellion, war veterans who couldn’t hold on to their farms. At any given moment, today, a quarter of all the homeless people in America are war veterans including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Times article, headlined “Veterans Face Vast Inequities Over Disability,” reported that Illinois, with the sixth highest number of deployed soldiers of any state, has the second largest backlog of unprocessed VA claims. Their average disability payment, $7,803 a year, is among the nation’s lowest. Pennsylvania, fourth highest in deployed troops, is tied for second in backlogged VA claims, with four of 10 claims pending for over six months. Pennsylvania’s average benefit for a disabled war vet is $8,268 yearly.
While the Reserve and National Guard have sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to the war, the average annual disability payment for those troops is $3,603, based on 2006 VA data for unmarried veterans with no dependents. Active-duty soldiers on average receive $4,962 in disability payments after they leave the military.
This is the first war in which the casualty and fatality rate for National Guard and Reserve soldiers has exceeded that of active-duty soldiers.
Many disabled veterans face extreme financial hardship. Army Specialist James Webb suffered post-traumatic stress and back injuries from a bomb blast in Iraq in 2004. He ran out of savings waiting 11 months for his claim and in fall 2005, was living homeless on the streets of Decatur, Ga.
“If the people could see a clear connection between this war and defending their homes or their nation, they would accept all this sacrifice,” McPherson concluded. “But that is not why we’re in Iraq.”
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