Vets Sue the VA: 'More than Half of Wounded Troops Slipping Through the Cracks'
By Aaron Glantz, AlterNet. Posted April 22, 2008.
"If you're suicidal you can't wait a month ... People placed on waiting lists have killed themselves."
A national class action lawsuit brought by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans went to trial on April 21. The suit, known as Veterans for Common Sense v. Peake was brought by two veterans organizations who argue the Department of Veterans Affairs is systematically denying hundreds of thousands of wounded veterans needed medical treatment, while forcing them to wait months or even years for the disability benefits they've earned.
"We're dealing with people who are almost totally disabled; people who have lost arms, lost legs in these wars, people who have come home with post-traumatic stress disorder or physical brain injury," explained Gordan Erspamer, an attorney with the law firm Morrison and Forrester who is handling the case pro bono. "We can't have these people waiting for months and years for the treatment they need."
According to a study released last week by the Rand Corp., an estimated 300,000 veterans among the nearly 1.7 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are battling depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 320,000 veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage that is often caused by roadside bombs.
However, the VA reports only about 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have received health care from the VA system -- about 120,000 for mental injuries. That means more than half the American service personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have slipped through the cracks.
"The VA needs aggressive, pro-veteran leaders, for more, additional funding for staff, office space and for screening and treatment equipment," said Paul Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. "The VA needs more streamlined policies so that veterans don't need to fill out a 20-page form in order to get care."
Sullivan said his organization decided to file suit when it became clear the agency wouldn't take action on its own. Before helping to found Veterans for Common Sense, Sullivan monitored disability claims for the VA. In 2006, he resigned in protest.
"In 2005, while working at VA, I briefed senior VA political leaders that VA was in a crisis of a surge of disability claims of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans," he said. "I recommended in writing that the VA hire more claims processors to make sure the veterans get their benefits faster instead of facing six month delays or even longer."
"The VA didn't do anything to help the veterans. What the VA actually did was several things to lock the doors and block veterans from getting mental health assistance from VA," Sullivan added.
The groups filed their claim in the Federal District Court in San Francisco in July 2007. In their lawsuit, the veterans groups asked the federal courts to force the VA to clear the backlog of disability claims and make sure returning veterans receive immediate medical and psychological help. They also want the judge to force the VA to screen all vets returning from combat to identify those at greatest risk for PTSD and suicide.
Since then, the Bush administration has tried multiple times to get the case dismissed. In court papers last year, the Justice Department argued that Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth did not have standing to sue because they were not individual veterans but associations. The Bush administration also argued that the entire notion of a veterans' class action lawsuit was illegal, declaring that all veterans are required to petition individually.
The judge, an 86-year-old Nixon appointee and World War II veteran named Samuel Conti, rejected each of those claims.
"It is within the court's power to insist that veterans be granted a level of due process that is commensurate with the adjudication procedures with which they are confronted," Conti ruled in January.
Representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to be interviewed for this story and also declined to provide a statement.
Across the country, veterans are watching the case with great interest.
Five years ago, U.S. Army Specialist Corey Gibson was at the "tip of the spear" of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A year later, the Indiana native finds himself battling an enemy that's harder to engage than the Iraqi Army: the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I've been thrown around from several psychologists, and can't see the same person at the same place for very long," the 27-year-old told me. "Most of the veterans that I know don't even go to seek care from the VA, because dealing with that system has been a major added stressor. Me, I try to keep my mind busy. My mind is going 90 miles a minute, anyway, so I might as well keep it focused on something that's going to help me.
In 2004, the VA diagnosed Gibson with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and rated him 100 percent disabled, meaning his mental state is too damaged for him to hold down a job.
His roommate, 22-year-old Andrew Whitt knows Gibson suffers from flashbacks and other demons from his wartime experience.
"When I come home, I have to yell, 'Hey, it's me!' so he doesn't pull a gun and go ballistic," Whitt said. "When he hears a loud noise outside he peeks through the blinds. He doesn't sit with his back toward doors in classrooms and restaurants. Every now and then it comes out with road rage. He's afraid of going out in public, fearful of what might happen."
Last week, Gibson called Veterans for Common Sense and offered to testify at trial if necessary. Lawyer Gordon Erspamer says his office has been deluged by similar calls.
"There are waiting lists to see a doctor that usually go for at least a month," he said. "Well, if you're suicidal you can't wait a month. You can't wait three months. People placed on waiting lists have killed themselves. It's a documented fact."
A recent CBS News investigation revealed 1,758 VA patients killed themselves in 2005. All told, the network estimated that more than 120 veterans commit suicide every week in the United States.
"There are more suicides every week than there are battlefield deaths," Erspamer noted. "We have got to deal with this problem, and if it costs more money, we've got to divert more money so we take care of these people."
The trial is expected to last a week.