By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—George Ball remembers last July 4 all too well.
“I spent it in my room with the windows drawn and the covers over my head,” the 32-year-old Iraq war veteran says. The bottle rockets, with their shrieking whistles followed by the pop of explosions, affected him most. “I got up in the middle of the night and looked for my weapon. This is normal stuff, though. You would have, too, if you’d been to Iraq as many times as I have.”
Ball served two tours there as an Army staff sergeant. He’d volunteered for duty in 2001—before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. “I didn’t get caught up in all the patriotism,” he said from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “I volunteered before it was popular.”
Now Ball suffers from one of the signature wounds of the Iraq war, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He says it was the reason given for his early discharge, a release that was forced upon him after his Bradley fighting vehicle was blown up while his unit was on patrol near Ramadi. While convalescing in Germany, Ball says, he became determined not to return to Iraq because his memory was so inconsistent as to be dangerous. “I couldn’t remember things—little things like where I put my keys and things like that,” he says. Knowing he had authority over the lives of other soldiers frightened him. “I was afraid I would forget something important and get somebody killed.”
And so, with his discharge papers affirming that he suffered from PTSD, Ball sought help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he applied for disability due to his inability to keep a steady job. He had tried working as an electrician’s apprentice at construction sites, but that only inflamed his condition, and he was fired. “Things would drop and they would scare me pretty bad. I’d keep forgetting stuff. I figured I could live with it if I just wrote stuff down,” he says. But the hard physical labor also worsened his war-related back injury, and the crashing sounds typical in construction work would send him diving into a ditch for cover.
A year after he applied for disability—a year after the Army had acknowledged his PTSD—Ball received an 80 percent disability rating and, with it, a steadier income. He is typical of those veterans who say the disability claims process is a labyrinth that leaves returning vets and their families in dire situations, unable to keep jobs in the civilian labor force or to navigate the disability maze with sufficient speed. Medical care, including mental health care, also is seen as slow in coming.
A federal judge in California ruled recently that a lawsuit brought by two veterans groups had established that returning vets are facing “significant delays in receiving disability benefits and medical care from the VA.” District Judge Samuel Conti found that “given the dire consequences many of these veterans face without timely receipt of benefits or prompt treatment for medical conditions, especially depression and PTSD, these injuries are anything but conjectural or hypothetical.” Nonetheless, Conti ruled that the court had no legal power to order the Department of Veterans Affairs to move faster.
So the difficult slog continues. Congress has begun responding to what amounts to the failure of our government to anticipate that waging two wars would produce veterans who need significant care. In the past two years, Congress has added $17 billion to the Veterans Affairs budget, an increase of about 40 percent, according to Rep. Bob Filner of California, who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We’ve got to clean this up,” Filner told me. “We know exactly what happens when we do it wrong. We treated the Vietnam vets very badly ... the same thing is happening now. There are Iraq veterans already homeless, there are [high] suicide rates. It’s life and death to take it seriously.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs says it is responding, having added 3,900 people to its mental health staff and initiating a national suicide hotline specifically for vets. It has begun an outreach program that has included spots on MTV.
There’s little doubt that the surge in concern comes in response to media accounts of mentally distressed veterans, complaints from their suffering families, hearings in Congress and lawsuits. In a very real way, it is a patriotic act of utmost importance to keep the pressure on.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group