How U.S. Is Failing Its War Veterans

After returning from Iraq in late 2005, Jonathan Schulze spent every day struggling not to fall apart. When a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic turned him away last month, he lost the battle. The 25-year-old Marine from Stewart, Minn., had told his parents that 16 men in his unit had died in two days of battle in Ramadi. At home, he was drinking hard to stave off the nightmares. Though he managed to get a job as a roofer, he was suffering flashbacks and panic attacks so intense that he couldn't concentrate on his work. Sometimes, he heard in his mind the haunting chants of the muezzin—the Muslim call to prayer that he'd heard many times in Iraq. Again and again, he'd relive the moments he was in a Humvee, manning the machine gun, but helpless to save his fellow Marines. "He'd be seeing them in his own mind, standing in front of him," says his stepmother, Marianne.

Schulze, who earned two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in Iraq, was initially reluctant to turn to the VA. Raised among fighters—Schulze's father served in Vietnam and over the years his older brother and six stepbrothers all enlisted in the military—Jonathan might have felt asking for help didn't befit a Marine.

But when the panic attacks got to be too much, he started showing up at the VA emergency room, where doctors recommended he try group therapy. He resisted; he didn't think hearing other veterans' depressing problems would help solve his own. Then, early last month, after more than a year of anxiety, he finally decided to admit himself to an inpatient program. Schulze packed a bag on Jan. 11 and drove with his family to the VA center in St. Cloud, about 70 miles away. The Schulzes were ushered into the mental-health-care unit and an intake worker sat down at a computer across from them. "She started typing," Marianne says. "She asked, 'Do you feel suicidal?' and Jonathan said, 'Yes, I feel suicidal'." The woman kept typing, seemingly unconcerned. Marianne was livid. "He's an Iraqi veteran!" she snapped. "Listen to him!" The woman made a phone call, then told him no one was available that day to screen him for hospitalization. Jonathan could come back tomorrow or call the counselor for a screening on the phone.

When he did call the following day, the response from the clinic was even more disheartening: the center was full. Schulze would be No. 26 on the waiting list. He was encouraged to call back periodically over the next two weeks in case there was a cancellation. Marianne was listening in on the conversation from the dining room. She watched Jonathan, slumped on the couch, as he talked to the doctor. "I heard him say the same thing: I'm suicidal, I feel lost, I feel hopelessness," she says. Four days later Schulze got drunk, wrapped an electrical cord around a basement beam in his home and hanged himself. A friend he telephoned while tying the noose called the police, but by the time officers broke down the door, Schulze was dead.

How well do we care for our wounded and impaired when they come home? For a country amid what President Bush calls a "long war," the question has profound moral implications. We send young Americans to the world's most unruly places to execute our national policies. About 50,000 service members so far have been banged up or burned, suffered disease, lost limbs or sacrificed something less tangible inside them. Schulze is an extreme example but not an isolated one, and such stories are raising concerns that the country is failing to meet its most basic obligations to those who fight our wars.

The question of after-action care also has strategic consequences. Iraq marks the first drawn-out campaign we've fought with an all-volunteer military. In practice, that means far fewer Americans are taking part in this war (12 percent of the total population participated in World War II, 2 percent in Vietnam and less than half of 1 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan). Already, the war has made it harder for the military to recruit new soldiers and more expensive to retain the ones it has. If we fall down in the attention we provide them, who's to say volunteers will continue coming forward?

The issue of veterans' care jumped into the headlines last week when The Washington Post published a series about Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The stories revealed decay and mismanagement at the hospital, and provoked shock and concern among politicians in both parties. "The doctors were fantastic," a Walter Reed patient, 21-year-old Marissa Strock, tells NEWSWEEK. "But some of the nurses and other staffers here have been a nightmare." Strock suffered multiple injuries, including broken bones, a lacerated liver and severely bruised lungs, when her Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device on Nov. 24, 2005. She later had both her legs amputated. "I think a big part of [Walter Reed's problems] is they just don't have enough people to adequately handle all the wounded troops coming in here every day," she says. (Walter Reed did not respond to requests for comment about Strock's case.) The Pentagon responded swiftly to the Post series. It vowed to investigate what went wrong and immediately sent a repair crew to repaint and fix the damage to the aging buildings.

The revelations were especially shocking because Walter Reed is one of the country's most prestigious military hospitals, often visited by prominent politicians, including the president. But it is just one part of a vast network of hospitals and clinics that serve wounded soldiers and veterans throughout the country. A NEWSWEEK investigation focused not on one facility but on the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a 235,000-person bureaucracy that provides medical care to a much larger number of servicemen and women from the time they're released from the military, and doles out their disability payments. Our reporting paints a grim portrait of an overloaded bureaucracy cluttered with red tape; veterans having to wait weeks or months for mental-health care and other appointments; families sliding into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months, and the seriously wounded requiring help from outside experts just to understand the VA's arcane system of rights and benefits. "In no way do I diminish the fact that there are veterans out there who are coming in who require treatment and maybe are not getting the treatment they need," White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto tells NEWSWEEK. "It's real and it exists."

The system's shortcomings are certainly not deliberate; no organization is perfect. Some of the VA's hospitals have been cited as among the best in the country, and even in extreme cases, the picture is seldom black-and-white. Before he killed himself, Schulze was seen by the VA 46 times, VA Secretary James Nicholson told Congress this month. (He did not elaborate on what care Schulze received.)

Yet, as the number of veterans continues to grow, critics worry the VA is in a state of denial. In a broad sense, the situation at the VA seems to mirror the overall lack of planning for the war. "We know the VA doesn't have the capacity to process a large number of disability claims at the same time," says Linda Bilmes, a Harvard public-finance professor and former Clinton administration Commerce Department official. Last month Bilmes released a 34-page study on the long-term cost of caring for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. She projects that at least 700,000 veterans from the global war on terror (GWOT) will flood the system in the coming years.

As it is, for some veterans the wait can be agonizing. Patrick Feges was on hold for 17 months until his first disability check from the VA came through. An Eagle Scout from Sugar Land, Texas, Feges enlisted in 2003 and found himself in Ramadi a year later. In October 2004, a mortar exploded on his base about 50 yards from him, spraying him with shrapnel, slicing his intestines and severing a major artery. Feges lost consciousness and was flown to Walter Reed, where he underwent surgery. Long scars trail down his legs and midsection. At the hospital a fellow Texan came to visit: President Bush stood by his bed and chatted with him.

Feges is a polite 22-year-old with a military manner. He addresses strangers by last name and an honorific, even when prodded to drop the formality. "I was brought up right, sir," he explains. But his voice rises slightly when he describes his ordeal with the VA. A case officer in Houston processed Feges's request for disability in September 2005, then lost his application. Feges was summoned to repeated medical evaluations at the Houston center, but a year later he was still waiting for a check. By then, Feges had been accepted to culinary school in Austin and did not want to put off his studies. His mother, an elementary-school teacher, took a second job at a local McDonald's to help support him.

For discharged service members, the VA serves two functions: it provides medical care for service-related conditions at its clinics and hospitals across the country, and it reviews claims for disability benefits—chiefly, the monthly payments wounded veterans get for the rest of their lives. The review process can be complicated. It requires veterans to prove, through documents and sometimes through the testimony of fellow soldiers, that their afflictions are a result of their time in the military. Feges listed on his application all the ways he'd been affected by the wounds: he'd lost mobility in his ankles and knees, he suffered regular stomach cramps from the intestinal wound, he lost sensation in his hands and legs, he had trouble standing for long periods. NEWSWEEK presented the VA with the names and details of the veterans whose stories are told here, but a spokesman for the agency declined to comment on individual cases, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. Speaking generally, Dr. Michael Kussman, the VA's acting under secretary for health, tells NEWSWEEK that the department is trying to reach veterans earlier, as they approach their date of discharge, and that he does not believe Iraq and Afghanistan are straining resources severely. "The impact on the VA so far has been relatively small," Kussman says. "It has not kicked the system over in our budget and in our ability to absorb it."

Still, a jump in disability claims in recent years has created a bottleneck. Daniel Cooper, the VA's under secretary for benefits, confirmed his department was coping with a backlog of 400,000 applications and appeals; 75 percent of them were still within a "reasonable" reviewing time frame, he says. Yet, most of those claims were filed by veterans of previous wars (a veteran can file or appeal a claim even decades after discharge). As more servicemen and women return from Iraq, the backlog is likely to increase. Cooper says the average waiting time for a benefits claim is about six months. NEWSWEEK turned up a number of veterans who'd waited longer. Keri Christensen, a National Guard veteran and a mother of two, says the VA in Chicago took 10 months to process her application. Rory Dunn, who nearly died in an IED attack outside Fallujah, says his application was delayed because, among other things, the VA mixed up his file with that of a Korean War veteran.

Feges's claim was finally approved last month: after NEWSWEEK and the advocacy group Veterans for America began looking into his case, he got a call from a VA official in Waco, Texas, with the news that his money would come through. Last week he received back pay to the date of his application.

The compensation is not huge. A veteran with a disability rating of 100 percent gets about $2,400 a month—more if he or she has children. A 50 percent rating brings in around $700 a month. But for many returning servicemen burdened with wounds, it is, initially at least, their sole income. "When I started school, that's when it became really hard not to have that money," says Feges.

One reason to worry about a crush of new vets at the VA has to do with the proportion of wounded to dead Americans in Iraq. Though we tend to mark the grim timeline of the war by counting fatalities, what really distinguishes this conflict is how many soldiers don't die, but suffer appalling injuries. In Vietnam and Korea, about three Americans were wounded for every one who died. The ratio in WWII was nearly 2-1. In Iraq, 16 soldiers are wounded or get sick for every one who dies. The yawning ratio marks progress: better body armor and helmets are shielding more soldiers from fatal wounds. And advanced emergency care is keeping more of the wounded alive. The VA's Kussman says that soldiers who survive the first few minutes after an explosion have a 98 percent chance of surviving altogether. But that means an increased burden on the VA's health-care system.

Two such survivors are Albert and Connie Ross. Albert lost a leg when a rocket-propelled grenade landed close to him in August 2004 while he was on patrol in Baghdad. Connie lived through a 2004 suicide bombing in Mosul but suffered multiple fractures and burns. When the two met in a hallway at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, Connie thought she noticed a certain swagger in Albert's walk. "He had this weird dip in his walk, so I asked him, 'Why are you pimp-walking in a hospital?' And he said: 'I'm not pimp-walking, I'm an amputee.' I was so embarrassed." The two married earlier this year and are expecting a child.

Though he's been in the VA system for more than two years now, Albert still doesn't have a primary-care doctor. Without one, getting appointments with specialists can be difficult. "You're supposed to be assigned one right away," says Albert, who now lives in San Antonio. "I'm not frustrated so much as worried—worried if and when something does go wrong, something will happen with one of my legs ... They [primary-care doctors] are the ones who have to fill out a work-order form; it's impossible to do anything without them."

One thing Albert desperately wants to do: get a new prosthetic. He's one of the early African-American amputees of the war. But the fake limb he's been given matches the skin tone of a Caucasian. It so embarrasses Albert that he always wears a sock over it—even if he's in sandals. "He's very self-conscious about it," says Connie. "It really bothers him."

Albert's situation is probably atypical. The VA says a huge majority of veterans get primary-care doctors within 30 days. But people inside the system do concede there's a shortage of mental-health workers at many of the VA's hospitals and clinics across the country. And Schulze is not the only veteran to commit suicide after being turned away. In a similar case in 2004, the VA twice neglected to treat Iraq veteran Jeffrey Lucey for posttraumatic stress disorder (the second time because he was told alcoholics must dry out before being accepted to an inpatient program). By the time a VA counselor tracked down a bed in a New York facility with a built-in detox program, Lucey had already hanged himself. "The system doesn't treat mental health with the same urgency it treats general health care," says a senior VA manager who did not want to be named talking about shortcomings in the agency.

Even when veterans get to the right doctors, understanding how to leverage what they need from the system can be mind-bending. Tonia Sargent, whose husband, Kenneth, nearly died in a sniper attack in Najaf in 2004, says no one ever sat her down and explained the benefits and how to access them. Her husband's brain injury made him often incapable of understanding his own care. Key decisions fell to her alone. It's a "don't ask, don't tell system," she says.

Kenneth is a Marine master sergeant who'd been in the Corps for nearly 18 years. He was on his second tour in Iraq when a sniper bullet ricocheted off the metal hatch on his vehicle and hit him directly below the right eye, grazing the front of his brain and exiting near his left ear. Among other things, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, which has become the signature wound of the Iraq war. Tonia had to fight the Marine Corps to keep him from being discharged, figuring he'd get better medical care if he remained in active service. But some of his treatment has been outsourced to the VA.

One of the tricks she learned early on was to demand photocopies of her husband's records—every exam, every X-ray, every diagnosis—and personally carry the file from appointment to appointment. "I don't know if there is a more formal protocol for transferring documents, but I know that what I brought ... was definitely put to use." When Sargent was transferred to the VA's lauded Polytrauma Center in Palo Alto, Calif., doctors there encouraged her to go home to Camp Pendleton near San Diego and treat his stay at the hospital as if it was a deployment. "After two weeks, they asked me how long I was planning to stay with my husband," she says. "They said it was his rehab, not mine. But I needed to learn how to care for him, and he suffered from extreme anxiety without me." She pushed back, staying in Palo Alto until he completed his care.

How can the system improve? Bilmes, who authored the Harvard study, proposes at least one drastic change—automatically accepting all disability claims and auditing them after payments have begun. (The VA says that would be an irresponsible use of taxpayer money.) Other critics have focused on raising the VA's budget, which has been proposed at $87 billion for 2008. More money could go toward hiring more claims officers and more doctors, easing the burden now and preparing the VA for the end of the Iraq war, when soldiers return home en masse.

But veterans' support groups and even some former and current VA insiders believe there's a reluctance in the Bush administration to deal openly with the long-term costs of the war. (All told, Bilmes projects it could cost as much as $600 billion to care for GWOT veterans over the course of their lifetimes.) That reluctance, they say, trickles down to the VA, where top managers are politically appointed. Secretary Jim Nicholson, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was chosen by Bush in 2005, tends to be the focus of this criticism.

The senior VA manager who did not want to be named criticizing superiors told NEWSWEEK: "He's a political appointee and he needs to respond to the White House's direction." Steve Robinson of Veterans for America levels the accusation more directly. "Why doesn't the VA have a projection of casualties for the wars? Because it would be a political bombshell for Nicholson to estimate so many casualties." The VA denies political considerations are involved in its budgeting or planning. Nicholson declined to be interviewed but Matt Burns, a spokesman for the VA, called Robinson's comments "nonsensical and inflammatory," adding: "The VA, in its budgeting process, carefully prepares for future costs so that we can continue to deliver the quality health care and myriad benefits veterans have earned."

Fratto, the White House deputy press secretary, says money is not the problem. He points out the VA has had a hard time filling positions in some remote parts of the country. "You need to find people who are trained in PTSD and other disorders that are affecting veterans and find those who are willing to go to places where they are needed."

As is often the case in America when government institutions falter, however, community groups are already stepping into the void. Veterans of Foreign Wars has advocates helping vets negotiate the VA bureaucracy, much the way health facilitators in the private sector help consumers get the most from their health insurance. Robinson, of Veterans for America, has pulled together teams of volunteers—physicians, psychologists, lawyers—who give vets free services when the local VA branch falls down. At his office recently, he was coordinating a traumatic-brain-injury screening with a private doctor for a veteran who'd been denied access to VA care. The fact that Americans are coming forward doesn't absolve the VA of its obligation to provide first-rate care for veterans. Most of the wounded's problems just can't be solved by private citizens and groups, no matter how well meaning. But it does serve to remind us that we should take better care of veterans wounded in the line of duty as they make their way home, and try to remake their lives.