Breaking It Down

It may not be PTSDs or brain injuries that pose the most long-term danger to our surviving vets from their Middle East tours.

Already there are hundreds of thousands of men and women drawing well-deserved four-figure checks for back pain, month after month. A growing number of scholars believe that the bill for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will surge beyond the bill for Vietnam, despite that fact that the number of killed and wounded is much smaller.
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According to the VA's own numbers, 2.2 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. Almost half that number — 942,000, to be exact — have done two or more tours. In McInroe's experience in Spokane, almost every veteran he spoke to who served more than one tour had back problems, just like Matthew Gonzales.

As of last year, 600,000 of those veterans had already signed up for disability payments, and according to the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, an average of 9,700 more were signing up every month at the end of 2011.

Matthew Gonzales was once a hard-charging athlete. After two tours of duty in Iraq, he is not one anymore, and won't be again, barring medical treatment he can't afford.
Daniel Kramer
Matthew Gonzales was once a hard-charging athlete. After two tours of duty in Iraq, he is not one anymore, and won't be again, barring medical treatment he can't afford.

The complaint most commonly reported to the VA by those post-9/11 veterans is, simply put, pain. "You look at these numbers of claims, and you wonder what they all are," says Patrick Bellon, a 33-year-old Iraq veteran and the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "A majority of these are these sorts of back and lower-leg injuries, because it's a lot of weight and you are carrying it under very difficult conditions."

According to a report by Dr. Drew Helmer of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, 55 percent of the patients diagnosed — 377,205 people according to this set of numbers — in VA hospitals between the first quarter of fiscal year 2002 and the second quarter of FY 2011 suffer from "diseases of musculoskeletal system/connective system."

And given the vagaries of aging, their number will continue to grow year after year, decade after decade. McInroe thinks it is a ticking money bomb.

Think about it. Veterans disability payments range in a complex matrix from $127 a month (for a 10 percent disabled vet with no dependents) up to $3,285 a month (100 percent disabled, with a family), all tax-free.

Let's just split the difference, pick a number right in the middle, say $1,500 monthly. To simplify an amazingly complicated math problem, but also to use what McInroe believes is a wildly understated number, let's round that 377,000 up to 400,000 back-injured veterans. Let's also say that they will be drawing $18,000 a year for the next 50 years. At $7.2 billion a year, that comes to $360 billion, just for the back injuries.

McInroe believes that estimate is extremely low. He believes that more and more veterans will continue to apply for and receive disability payments for back injuries, and that more and more often, those disabilities will max out at 100 percent, or $3,000 a month. In his nightmare scenario, a million men and women would be 100 percent disabled and drawing $36,000 yearly, and before the last check is set, the taxpayers will be out $36 billion a year for 50 years: $1.8 trillion.

"And that's just for compensation," McInroe adds. "That does not include medical care." Nor does it include the 45 percent of veterans disabled by other means, such as the 46,000 combat-wounded, or the 150-000-plus sufferers of PTSD.
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McInroe has been trying to publicize this issue for years, dating back to the earliest days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Starting around 2006, he began telling his higher-ups about his findings at national conventions and such. "I was just screaming about back pain," he says. His counterparts were doing likewise. He says that word came back from Washington to shut up or get fired.

At one convention, McInroe recalls, he led a seminar at which he stressed to some trainees the severity of the back-pain epidemic. Later at the same convention, he ran into Jill Manske, then the head of the VA's social workers, informally.

"She pulls me aside in one of the hallways and says, 'Carroll, I didn't know you were gonna teach classes on back injuries!'"

McInroe reported that he believed he had no choice, as in his view it was the top problem his vets were afflicted with. "And she said, 'God, don't ever do that again. People in the central office in DC are being fired for even mentioning back injuries. The Bush White House does not even want back injuries mentioned.'"

Manske is now retired. Reached at her home in central Texas, she says she had no recollection of such a conversation ever taking place.

McInroe is undaunted by her denial. He believes that the Bush White House saw the back injuries as just one more enormous ladleful of bad news in a hellbroth that was then already boiling over. "Iraq was fallin' apart, the WMDs were never found, they hadn't caught Osama, there were all these IEDs," he says. "This was just one more thing."

Another possible reason the Bush White House might have wanted to conceal the extent of the back-injury epidemic is that it reflected an unforeseen consequence of Donald Rumsfeld's all-volunteer, lean-and-mean modern military.

In contrast with past wars, the shadow army of contractors handled the bulk of the jobs in the rear, whereas in prior wars, front-line units would occasionally rotate back for lighter duty. As one expert put it, today's soldier is "relentlessly in the field," laden the whole time with upwards of 90 pounds of gear. And as Bellon puts it, at least in Afghanistan and Iraq, the concept of a front-line/rear divide was nebulous. "When there is no rear, where are you gonna go to?" he asks.

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14 comments
alois40
alois40

Thanks to Lomax and the Press for writing and publishing this story on servere injuries to our vets of Iraq and Afganistan who suffer from injuries that have been heretofore been overshadowed by the PTSD injuries. When one reads this well written and documented article, the conclusion is that without advocates our soldiers suffering from the muscloskeletal-conttective tissue injuries will not receive the attention and medical care they deserve.

Rixar13
Rixar13

"After two tours of duty in Iraq, Matthew Gonzales says he has the body of a 45-year-old. Trouble is, he's 30"

I see this everyday at the VA hospital....

dobs
dobs

- this mechanic's numerous car&motorcycle mishaps resulted in total body pain & intermittent inability to walkfor 30+yrs, until giving Structural Integration,aka,Rolfing &Osteopathy a shot...combine that with diet: no dairy & epsom salt baths,vit c & Homeopthy...No pharma drugs,ever.At age 50+,the pain&disability is close to nil...cheers

Ben Brink
Ben Brink

Still going around with the VA on neck pain from this armor--was pretty heavy at age 57. I'm now retired from service and glad to be done.

fratdawgg23
fratdawgg23

It seems like apples and orages comparing the current Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to vets of past combat missions. Specifically, WWII vets were rotated out of combat on a regular basis; over the past ten-plus years, many of our vets have been re-deployed into combat two or more times, whether by choice or orders.

Re: PTSD, it would be interesting to better understand the devastating and long-term harm to our military personnel by Bush's wars of choice, I can't help but think much of the PTSD is a result of using our military to invade and occupy two sovereign nations, killing many thousands of innocent civilians, and the guilt of knowing that they must follow orders but that the orders are causing the deaths of people just as innocent as their own families back home. The 'insurgents' are far too often not 'terrorists', but rather civilians who have taken up arms in disorganized groups to fight the armies that have invaded and continue to occupy their country. It is no less devastating to see one's fellow citizens killed by night raids, drone attacks or sport killing sprees as it is for soldiers to see fellow soldiers killed by roadside bombs or during the ambush of a convoy of vehicles.

Use our military for defense or peacekeeping if requested in hot spots, but to use the men and women of our armed services to kill thousands of civilians - and they are all civilians since neither of the armies of Iraq and Afghanistan attacked us first nor do their armies resist our occupation. Are the guilty consciences from killing so many innocent people a cause for the high suicide rate of our military? No matter how one looks at it, we must remember to attribute these wars of choice to the Bush admin - the most dangerous since neither ever served in active duty in combat yet were sure quick to threaten and carry out the use of our military for political reasons. Their consciences, if they have any, should burden them until their last breath.

Sanjuana Gabriela Enríquez Gal
Sanjuana Gabriela Enríquez Gal

Just to make this clear, after 9/11, it was clear that we were going to invade Afghanistan. There were only a small number of people who objected to the Afghanistan invasion. As far as we are concerned, it was 100% good, okay, just and moral to invade Afghanistan to root out the Taliban. Whether the subsequent Afghanistan strategy was legitimate and/or whether we should still be here IS an acceptable debate. But to question invading... No.

On the other hand, Iraq *was* a terrible idea because the U.S. didn't take the time to learn the true situation on the ground, and when it did overthrow Saddam, it failed to provide effective services and security for the Iraqi people, making them *hate* the US occupation (if the U.S. had provided services and security for the Shiites, then they may not have hated the US that much)

MN Soldier
MN Soldier

All previous wars, Soldiers did not have to wear 50 pounds of body armor. The Flak Vest of Vietnam is a t-shirt compared to what WE (yes, I'm still in) wear on a daily basis. Yes, it does suck. BUt; when you combine the advances that have been made in body armor and the advances in critical hospital care; more of us are surviving them war. At least in body.

Yes, after four deployments to Iraq I can say my back hurts. My knees hurt, I loathe running. Now lets add in the weight of the rifle (M-16 weighs 7.9 pounds), ammo, plus water (Camelback), plus all the other crap we have to carry. And if its in Afghanistan - then you have to add in the weight of the rucksack, plus cold weather gear. On average 100 pounds.

When I got on the scale in Germany to leave for Iraq in 2003, I weighed 180 pounds. Then I had to get back on with all my gear -- 350 pounds. Did it suck? Yuppers. But it is what I decided to do. I wasn't drafted. I volunteered.

No about PTSD. Battle fatigue, Shell Shock. Whatever you want to call it. "IT" DOES exist. Any Veteran who tries to tell you otherwise is only kidding themselves. Stories of battle fatigue are as old as war. Case in point. World War II, General Patton on arriving at a 1st Infantry Division Field Hospital sees many Soldiers wounded in "glorious battle;" then he sees one kid of in a corner. Nothing appeared to be wrong. Soldier, when asked by GEN Patton "What's the matter with you?" replies "I can't take it anymore, the shelling." Patton becomes enraged and smacks the kids helmet off. Patton then threatens to shoot the Soldier. Was Patton right? Yes AND No. Patton in his diary wrote that "...he hoped to knock some good common sense in to the boy." The boy was taken out by the hospital staff, and checked out. Turns out the Soldier HAD battle-fatigue (shell shock, PTSD), and another ailment; dysentery. Which if left untreated can take out more than just one Soldier.

I see Soldiers deal with PTSD everyday. I know I deal with my own. I don't like explosions. Why? Because the week of July 8-14 2007 my little corner of Iraq was hit with over 400 rounds of 107mm rockets and 82mm mortars. July 10, 2007 saw 62 rounds of 82mm mortars landing between 50-200 meters from my desk. I don't like loud sounds. But that's just me.

The issue isn't; what Surfn2336 thinks as Soldiers being weaker. In fact it is just the opposite. Soldiers are becoming more resilient; we are able to bounce back after facing a potentially traumatic event. The difference between my service today and my fathers service in Korea (50-53); or hell, my grandfathers service in World War I has less to do with the Soldier, and MORE to do with the advancements in protective technology. Advancements in traumatic medical care. Advancements in psychiatry. And yes, advancements in man's propensity to kill another in a more efficient manner.

As General Sherman said in our own Civil War. "War is Hell."

Surfn2336
Surfn2336

Nothing about the Gulf or Iraq wars was remotely similar to what the soldiers endured in Vietnam and WW2 yet we seem to have a much larger number of PTSD style complaints, aches and pains etc. What is the deal. Is our new soldier weaker than those of the past? I worked with a guy who was in the "hamburger hill" area of vietnam. His stories make Iraq sound like a day at the playground.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

I think our troops today suffer just as much as they did during WW1 & 2 and visa-versa. For that matter, if you look at photos of injuries from The Civil War, they were quite horrific. Part of what's different is modern technology and medical abilities. Not only can we fight our enemies a lot more effectively, but we can heal and diagnose a lot more things now than we could just 20 years ago.

Also, history only records certain facts. It's impossible to compare PTSD / shell shock statistics from past wars, because in a lot of cases, there are no statistics on record any longer.

Wyatt
Wyatt

It's a different culture now. PTSD wasn't something that was talked about post-WWII. Just because it's mentioned more now doesn't mean it happens more. It's just more acceptable to talk about it.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

PTSD used to be called "shell shock" and it was a huge deal during and after World War I.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

Agree! Even if you read about The Civil War or the American Revolution, you can find stories of men committing suicide, abandoning their families, or becoming alcoholics because they are emotionally devastated by what they've been through. War is a terrible thing, regardless of the century one lives in or the necessity of the battle.

JenniferGrassman
JenniferGrassman

Such an eye-opening article! Our troops & vets deserve much, MUCH better. Thank you John Lomax & Houston Press for covering this.

 
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