Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, North America

POLITICS-US: Vets See Hope for a Broken System

Aaron Glantz*

OAKLAND, California, Nov 17 2008 (IPS) - Thirty-three-year-old Walter Williams was among the thousands of revelers who flooded into the streets of Oakland on Nov. 4 to celebrate Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States.

Williams, a U.S. Army veteran who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, initially had trouble coping with his return from the war zone. He did drugs and slept in his car and the homes of his friends, before stabilising himself and landing a job at the San Francisco non-profit Swords to Plowshares, where he helps other veterans find work.

On election night, Williams told IPS he had sworn off participating in the electoral process after “the lies I saw in the desert”, but became excited about Obama’s campaign after he saw the president-elect speaking to veterans on MTV.

“He cared enough to ask,” Williams said. “He didn’t just turn away, turn his back like most people do… He actually cares about the common man, and the common man is who’s over there fighting.”

Professional veterans’ advocates also have high hopes for an Obama administration. They note that as a senator, Obama co-sponsored the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, which was designed to solve problems with the military medical system after the Washington Post revealed deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in 2007.

Obama was also a strong supporter of strengthening educational benefits for returning soldiers through a more generous GI Bill, and has consistently voted to appropriate more money to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as it copes with the more than 350,000 veterans who have turned to the VA for medical treatment after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in Denver in August, Obama referred to the plight of the country’s veterans numerous times. “We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty,” he said.

“In the faces of those young veterans who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I see my grandfather,” Obama said, “who signed up after Pearl Harbor, marched in Patton’s army, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with the chance to go to college on the GI Bill.”

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said his organisation believes “President-elect Obama is already pro-veteran. We believe that he has a generally favourable disposition toward veterans, we’ve been pleased to see him give veterans issues a very high profile, and we hope that continues while he’s in the White House.”

Donald Overton, executive director of Veterans of Modern Warfare, shared a similar sentiment with IPS.

“I had the opportunity to meet with President-elect Obama’s team at the Democratic National Convention,” Overton said. “President-elect Obama really seems to have his heart in the right place. He is engaging the veteran community and he is looking to make significant changes so we’re hoping his administration and their transition team will assess the situation, put the right people in office, and really bring about change within the VA system.”

On his official transition website, Obama promises to increase the number of VA mental health providers, reform the government’s bureaucratic disability claims system, and increase the number of Vet Centres, where returning veterans can find community as they make the difficult transition from war to civilian life.

If he makes good on those promises, it will make a tremendous difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. But it will not be easy, because George W. Bush is leaving the Department of Veterans Affairs in a state of disarray.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 18 veterans commit suicide every day and 200,000 sleep homeless on the streets on any given night.

An April 2008 study by the Rand Corporation found that 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans currently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Another 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury and physical brain damage. A majority are not receiving help from the Pentagon or VA system which critics say are more concerned with concealing unpleasant facts than they are with providing care.

Both Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans of Modern Warfare are suing the Bush administration for failing to care for the country’s wounded veterans.

Veterans for Common Sense’s class action lawsuit aims to force the VA to treat Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans of Modern Warfare filed suit last week to force the VA to give disability payments to wounded veterans in a timely manner.

Both of them will be pushing their lawsuits forward even as Barack Obama assumes the presidency of the United States.

*IPS Correspondent Aaron Glantz is author of the upcoming book “The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans”.

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