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 Day 19

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The Waiting List for VA Medical Care in the Seattle Area Alone is More Than 3,000

Fund the Wounded, Not the War

by JESSE HAGOPIAN

"This government is guilty of not taking care of the troops after they come home. We are hoping to show this nation how broken the Veterans Administration is. We want to make this a responsive and efficient system."

–Kevin Lucey

Kevin Lucey is the father of 23-year-old Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Lucey, who committed suicide in his parents’ Massachusetts basement less than a year after returning home from fighting during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Kevin and his wife announced on Thursday, July 26 that they are suing the U.S. government for negligence, charging their son hanged himself after the government ignored his blatant signs of PTSD and depression–nightmares, daily vomiting, heavy drinking and violent verbal outbursts.

Sadly, the neglect of Jeffrey Lucey is not a rare tragedy, but a common outrage when America is at war.

In the first quarter of 2006 alone, the Department of Veterans Affairs "treated 20,638 Iraq veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder, and they have a backlog of 400,000 cases," according to the California Nurses Association. "A returning soldier has to wait an average of 165 days for a VA decision on initial disability benefits, and an appeal can take up to three years."

Some of the ongoing abuse of returning veterans finally surfaced in American consciousness amid the Washington Post’s revelations of the shoddy care and facilities at the Walter Reed VA Hospital. The maze of bureaucracy that kept veterans from the care they needed and Building 18’s now infamous living conditions -moldy, cracked walls, and infestations of roaches and mice-provided the ambience for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq who were told they were heroes by the politicians.

Rocked by the Walter Reed scandal, Veterans Affairs chief Jim Nicholson announced July 17 he would resign to return to the private sector.

Unfortunately for the more than 50,000 U.S. troops that have been wounded on Iraq’s battlefields and the thousands suffering from PTSD, Nicholson’s resignation is too little too late. The problems of chronic VA under funding and a war in Iraq that provide a steady flow of casualties ensures that tens of thousands of military families continue to pay the ultimate price for this illegal war.

"When Bush says, ‘Support the troops’, it wrings hollow given that he has cut veterans’ benefits when they return from war," said Chanan Suarez-Diaz, President of the Seattle chapter of the IVAW. "We believe Americans would be appalled if they knew the facts about the treatment the Iraq war vets have received."

Seattle area veterans, military families, and activists are determined to find common cause in revealing the despicable treatment of veterans. "We hope that our march to the Puget Sound VA in Seattle can serve as a model to people around the country to revitalize the antiwar movement and highlight the criminal neglect of veterans," said march organizer Chris Mobley.

The waiting list for VA medical care in the Puget Sound region is now as high as 3,000 claims. As AFGE steward Steve McFadden said in an a recent interview, "There has been a lot of short staffing in the hospital, and that’s an area we’re very concerned about. There’s a huge claims backlog in the VA, and that comes about by not having enough people to process claims."

Recently, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) visited the hospital to inspect the facility–and incredibly declared that the VA was taking the necessary steps to improve its mental health unit. Yet only hours before her visit, a patient tried to kill himself by slashing his arms with glass punched out from the window of an isolation room. This followed another suicide at the American Lake facility, located south of Seattle.

"Senator Murry says she supports our troops and claims to be a leader in veterans’ care and treatment," Elizabeth Fawthrope chided. "But how can you support veterans’ healthcare and continue to fund the war in Iraq that is maiming and killing thousands of people and creating many more traumatized veterans?"

It took the diligent efforts of McFadden contacting the local press for Murray’s office to even respond to the incident. Now, the hospital is replacing the windows with shatterproof glass.

Historically, veterans have had to organize and fight for the benefits they are entitled to. Veterans of the 1991 Gulf War struggled for years–and are still fighting–for government recognition of and compensation for Gulf War Syndrome. Before them, Vietnam veterans had to organize to get their conditions recognized.

Thanks to their many years of persistent organizing, the military was finally forced to acknowledge the very idea of PTSD, which has now become an accepted medical diagnosis even for trauma suffered in civilian life.

Veterans, military families, and activists today will have to lead the same kind of struggle if they are going to win the care that those who have been ravaged by the Iraq war deserve. The call to action by the Seattle area coalition should be duplicated by the antiwar movement around the country: fund the wounded not the war!

JESSE HAGOPIAN is a member of the Troops Home Now Coalition in Seattle.

What you can do:
Join the protest on Saturday July 28. Gather at 12 noon in front of the Jefferson Community Center at 3801 Beacon Ave. S., in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. For more information visit www.troopshomenowcoalition.org or call Call 206-856-4059