Thursday, October 12, 2006

150,000 US Soldiers Disabled From Iraq and Afghanistan

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Disabled From Service

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Newly released documents reveal that more than 150,000 soldiers who left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at least partly disabled as a result of service - this translates to one in four veterans. What’s more, it appears the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was trying to hide the figures. We speak with Paul Sullivan of Veterans for America. [includes rush transcript]

While the number of Iraqi deaths since the US-led invasion is the subject of much dispute, the number of American soldiers killed is a carefully recorded figure. So far, 2,754 US troops have been killed in Iraq. While the US death toll is widely reported in the media, the hidden cost on soldiers who return from fighting is not. Newly released documents reveal that more 150,000 soldiers who left the military after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been at least partly disabled as a result of service - this translates to one in four veterans. What’s more, it appears the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has tried to hide the figures.

The documents on the number of disability claims filed by veterans were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. But the VA initially denied the existence of the records for nine months. It was only after the Archive advised the VA that it was prepared to file a lawsuit did the agency manage to locate the records.

Paul Sullivan is the director of programs for Veterans for America and a former VA analyst. He helped the Archive with their FOIA request.

Paul Sullivan. Director of Programs for Veterans for America, an advocacy group, and a former V.A. analyst.


AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan is the Director of Programs for Veterans for America and a former VA analyst. He helped the Archive with their FOIA request. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

PAUL SULLIVAN: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don't you talk about exactly how you obtained these documents?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Well, the National Security Archive at George Washington University sent in a Freedom of Information Act almost one year ago, nine - ten months ago. And you’re right. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs initially denied that there were any reports that described how many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were disabled after their service in the war. What ended up happening was, I left the Department of Veterans’ Affairs about six months ago, and I learned about this Freedom of Information Act, and then the National Security Archives --

AMY GOODMAN: Everything is fine. You can keep talking.

PAUL SULLIVAN: Sorry about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, by the way -- Paul Sullivan is joining us from the Reuters studio in Washington, D.C. Go ahead, Paul.

PAUL SULLIVAN: Sorry about that, Amy. What happened is the National Security Archives at George Washington University sent in a Freedom of Information Act request about nine months ago, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs initially denied that the document existed, that there was actually statistics showing how many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were disabled after their service. The National Security Archives had requested the report, because the VA prepares similar reports on Gulf War veterans. I was the project manager who created those reports each month. Now, we know from the new report on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans that about one in four of those who served in the war have reported a disability since they got back from the war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Paul, in terms of the disabilities reported, was there any further information on the types of disabilities or the causes of them?

PAUL SULLIVAN: No, in fact, the report prepared by the Veterans' Benefits Administration, a sub-agency of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, did not list the costs associated with all these disabled veterans, and it did not list categories of disabilities. For example, is it a bullet wound, is it amputation, or is it a mental health condition, or is it a traumatic brain injury? That type of information was not in the report, which goes to show that VA really doesn’t have comprehensive information about what’s happening among the returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. And that lack of information led to a $3.5 billion shortfall in the VA budget last year.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, in terms of the causes also -- because I know previously I had done a report for the New York Daily News about the number of veterans who are using Veterans' hospitals with a variety of illnesses, and a significant number with undefined illnesses that doctors could not clarify what the causes were. So at this point, your belief is that the VA doesn’t have the information on disabilities, or maybe it does have it and hasn’t yet released it?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Juan, there’s two points to go over here. The first is that the hospitals -- and those are run by an agency called the Veterans Health Administration -- they put out a report that actually lists the diagnoses of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the other agency, the Veterans' Benefits Administration, where I worked, has a report that lists the disabilities where the veterans are getting monthly payments. That report does not list the specific disabilities that the veterans are receiving payments for. And that just goes to show that VA really doesn't even know what’s going on within VA.

Let me bring you back to the healthcare report prepared by the Veterans Health Administration. You are exactly right, Juan. About a third of the veterans who are going to VA hospitals are reporting mental health problems, and more than a third of the veterans coming back are reporting ill-defined conditions. And this sounds like a repeat of the Gulf War: undiagnosed illnesses caused by toxic exposures and other things going on in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Paul Sullivan, Director of Programs for Veterans for America, an advocacy group, and former VA analyst. I wanted to ask you about this term -- is it “GWOT”? The VA responding to the original request for documents about the number of disability benefits filed by veterans during the current war by claiming no documents existed apparently because the reports concerned the global war on terrorism, GWOT, rather than being limited to the Iraq war. What does that mean?

PAUL SULLIVAN: It means, in simple terms, that it appears the administration was playing a definitions game. Right now, if you read the report, Amy, from the Veterans' Benefits Administration, it says that there is actually no official definition for the global war on terror. The global war on terror, or GWOT, has several other names: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom. So, depending upon how a reporter asked the question, the administration has a tremendous amount of flexibility in what kind of answer they want to provide.

Let me give you an example. Right now, the Department of Defense, if you ask them how many service members are in Iraq, they’ll answer 150,000. However if you ask the question, “How many service members are now deployed to the global war on terror, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?” the number is actually 250,000. The higher number takes into account service members in places like Kuwait, Qatar, Diego Garcia and the nations surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan and aboard ships. So, what VA and DOD are doing is they’re playing a definition game. If someone doesn’t ask for exactly the right kind of report and the right kind of statistic, then the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs can simply say the report doesn’t exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan, what does this mean for costs? What does it mean for all of the disability costs?

PAUL SULLIVAN: What it means is, in terms of how much money the Iraq and Afghanistan war will cost taxpayers, the war will cost billions per year well out into the future. And here's why. There are two types of costs at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The first is for veterans to actually be treated by a doctor. That’s medical care. And as I mentioned, VA last year was short $3 billion for their healthcare budget, and they needed emergency funding in order to take care of the veterans.

The VA also pays monthly disability checks. It’s called disability compensation or pension. And those checks show up in the mail or direct deposit into veterans’ accounts due to their disabilities incurred or aggravated by military service. What’s happened is, with this flood of disability claims coming into VA, VA may be paying out billions of dollars per year for 30 or 40 years due to the disabilities -- you know, missing arms, legs, psychiatric problems -- from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Paul, your group, Veterans for America, what is your group hearing, in terms of these returning veterans, how they’re being treated and dealt with when they go to the VA hospitals or when they try to apply for their disability benefits?

PAUL SULLIVAN: Well, right now, because VA is in a state of crisis -- they’re being flooded with new patients and new claims for disability compensation -- what’s happening is the process is slowing down. It’s taking longer for veterans to see a doctor, and it’s taking longer for veterans to have their disability compensation claims processed. The number of veterans who had to wait more than six months for a disability claim decision doubled in the last year. What that means is, medical care and disability benefits delayed really means medical care and disability benefits denied.

And the veterans are starting to tell us at Veterans for America that they’re frustrated and upset about the increased delays at VA. And it shows that VA should have and could have had a plan to increase capacity. That means hire more doctors and hire more claims processors to make sure that there were not these delays among our veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Sullivan, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, the report claiming that one in four veterans in the global war on terror are claiming disabilities. And the latest news out of Washington, General Peter Schoomaker saying on Wednesday at least 120,000 U.S. soldiers will stay in Iraq through the year 2010, the top Army officer. This is really one of the first times the Pentagon or the Bush administration has said this. I want to thank you for being with us.


Pan-African News Wire said...

National Security Archive Update,

October 10, 2006

VA Takes Nine Months to Locate Data on Disability Claims by Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

Report Indicates that 1 in 4 Veterans of the Global War on Terrorism Claim Disabilities

For more information contact:
Meredith Fuchs/Catherine Nielsen - 202/994-7000

Washington, DC, October 10, 2006 - One in four veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are filing disability claims, according to records released by the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) under the Freedom of Information Act after nine months of denying their existence and posted today on the National Security Archive Web site.

The VA responded to the Archive's original January 2006 FOIA request for documents about the number of disability benefits claims filed by veterans from the current war in Iraq by claiming that no documents existed, apparently because the reports concern the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) rather than being limited to the Iraq War. Notably, one of the reports indicates that GWOT is the "military name for the current wars in and around Afghanistan and Iraq." A similar report was released in December 2005 detailing Gulf War veterans' benefit activity. An updated copy of this report was released in March 2006.

Only after the Archive administratively appealed the VA's "no documents" claims and advised the VA that it was prepared to file a lawsuit did the agency manage to locate the records. One is a January 30, 2006, document: "Compensation and Pension Benefit Activity Among 464,144 Veterans Deployed to the Global War on Terror." It reports that more than 150,000 deployed Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) veterans, out of more than 560,000 veterans of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), filed disability compensation and pension benefits claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The other is a July 20, 2006, document: "Compensation and Pension Benefit Activity Among Veterans of the Global War on Terrorism."

Veterans' groups have criticized the VA for using emergency appropriations to fund veterans' benefits rather than realistically planning and budgeting for the veterans' needs. According to Veterans for America, the newly released data suggests official estimates dramatically understate the future cost of the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. If the current trend continues, then VA could receive as many as 400,000 disability claims from the 1.6 million deployed active duty and reserve service members in the Global War on Terrorism. Jonathan Powers, Associate Director of Veterans for America and an Iraq War veteran, warned, "VA already has a backlog, and the claims process is only going to get worse unless VA takes action now. VA has no plan or funding to process and pay existing and future claims to ensure our veterans promptly receive the disability benefits and healthcare care they earned."

In its most recent FOIA Annual Report, the VA purported to process 1.9 million FOIA requests during FY 2005, with a median processing time of 11 days. Meredith Fuchs, the Archive's General Counsel, expressed dismay at how the FOIA request was handled: "For the agency to take nine months to 'find' information that is of clear current public interest in the context of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism is astounding. It is one thing for VA to be reluctant to deliver bad news, but another thing entirely to deny the existence of the information."

These documents were posted today on the Web site of the National Security Archive.


THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.

Pan-African News Wire said...

Co-Author of Medical Study Estimating 650,000 Iraqi Deaths Defends Research in the Face of White House Dismissal
Thursday, October 12th, 2006
The White House is dismissing the findings of a medical study that says 650,000 people have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. The study was conducted by American and Iraqi researchers and published in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet. We’re joined by the report’s co-author, epidemiologist Les Roberts. [includes rush transcript]

More than 650,000 people have died in Iraq since the U.S. led invasion of the country began in March of 2003. This is according to a new study published in the scientific journal, The Lancet. The study was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Researchers based their findings on interviews with a random sampling of households taken in clusters across Iraq. The study is an update to a prior one compiled by many of the same researchers. That study estimated that around 100,000 Iraqis died in the first 18 months after the invasion.
Les Roberts joins us now from Syracuse, New York -- He is one of the main researchers of the study. He was with Johns Hopkins when he co-authored the study but has just taken a post at Columbia University.

Les Roberts. Co-author of the study on civilian mortality in Iraq since the invasion. He was with Johns Hopkins when he co-authored the study but has just taken a post at Columbia University.

This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
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AMY GOODMAN: Les Roberts joins us now from Syracuse, New York. He’s one of the main researchers of the study. He was with Johns Hopkins when he co-authored the study but has just taken a post at Columbia University. Les Roberts, welcome to Democracy Now!

LES ROBERTS: Hi, Amy. It’s nice to be with you again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don't you lay out exactly what you found?

LES ROBERTS: Sure, we, as you said, went to about 50 neighborhoods spread around Iraq that were picked at random, and each time we went, we knocked on 40 doors and asked people, “Who lived here on the first of January, 2002?” and “Who lived here today?” And we asked, “Had anyone been born or died in between?” And on those occasions, when people said someone die, we said, “Well, how did they die?” And we sort of wrote down the details: when, how old they were, what was the cause of death. And when it was violence, we asked, “Well, who did the killing? How exactly did it happen? What kind of weapon was used?” And at the end of the interview, when no one knew this was coming, we asked most of the time for a death certificate. And 92% of the time, people walked back into their houses and could produce a death certificate. So we are quite sure people didn’t make this up.

And our conclusion was comparing the death rate for that 14 months before the invasion, with the 40 months after, that the death rate is now about four times higher. And, in fact, it’s twice as high as when we last spoke two years ago and when we did our first study. So, things have gotten bad, as you stated. We think about 650,000 extra people have died because of this invasion, and about 600,000, some 90%, are from violence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’m sure you have heard by now the responses of President Bush and military leaders about this. What is your response to their saying that this is not credible?

LES ROBERTS: You know, I don't want to sort of stoop to that level and start saying general slurs, but I just want to say that what we did, this cluster survey approach, is the standard way of measuring mortality in very poor countries where the government isn’t very functional or in times of war. And when UNICEF goes out and measures mortality in any developing country, this is what they do. When the U.S. government went at the end of the war in Kosovo or went at the end of the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. government measured the death rate, this is how they did it. And most ironically, the U.S. government has been spending millions of dollars per year, through something called the Smart Initiative, to train NGOs and UN workers to do cluster surveys to measure mortality in times of wars and disasters.

So, I think we used a very standard method. I think our results are couched appropriately in the relative imprecision of [inaudible]. It could conceivably be as few as 400,000 deaths. So we’re upfront about that. We don’t know the exact number. We just know the range, and we’re very, very confident about both the method and the results.

AMY GOODMAN: Les Roberts, this was President Bush when he was asked about the study Tuesday, during his morning news conference. He dismissed the study, as you know, and said Iraqis are willing to tolerate the level of violence in Iraq. The question came from CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX: A group of American and Iraqi health officials today released a report saying that 655,000 Iraqis have died since the Iraq war. That figure is 20 times the figure that you cited in December, at 30,000. Do you care to amend or update your figure, and do you consider this a credible report?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey, and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me and it grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate. And it's now time for the Iraqi government to work hard to bring security in neighborhoods, so people can feel, you know, at peace.

No question, it's violent. But this report is one -- they put it out before. It was pretty well -- the methodology is pretty well discredited. But I -- you know, I talk to people like General Casey and, of course, the Iraqi government put out a statement talking about the report.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX: The 30,000, Mr. President? Do you stand by your figure -- 30,000?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, I stand by the figure. A lot of innocent people have lost their life -- 600,000, or whatever they guessed at, is just -- it's not credible. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, this was General George Casey, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, who was also asked about the Lancet study.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY: I have not seen the study. That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so, I don’t give that much credibility at all.

REPORTER: What’s the 50,000 number? Where did you see that from?

GEN. GEORGE CASEY: I don't remember, but I’ve seen it over time.

REPORTER: Is it a U.S. military estimate?

GEN. GEORGE CASEY: I don't remember where I saw that. It’s either from the Iraqi government or from us, but I don’t remember precisely.

AMY GOODMAN: General George Casey and President Bush. Les Roberts, your response, and also to President Bush saying Iraqis tolerate this level of violence.

LES ROBERTS: Well, you know, we didn’t do a poll of Iraqis about their tolerance for the level of violence, but I think that Iraqis are pretty unhappy with the level of violence. And I think there are a couple of issues that arise, because of this. First of all, you know, I’m not so surprised that entities that monitor newspaper reports or groups that are looking at official government statistics think that it’s ten times lower than the real number.

We have gone and looked at every recent war we can find, and only in Bosnia did all governmental statistics add up to even one-fifth of the true death toll. And in Bosnia, the rate was 30 or 40 percent, with huge support for surveillance activities from the UN. So it’s normal in times of war that communications systems break down, systems for registering events break down.

And in Saddam’s last year of his reign, only about one-third of all deaths were captured at morgues and hospitals through the official government surveillance network. So, when things were good, if only a third of deaths were captured, what do you think it’s like now?

And another thought is that -- quite unrelated -- if someone said in the 9/11 attacks, “I think only 200 or 300 people really died,” we would be really, really upset. And I think in the long view, the danger of discarding this study, if it’s correct, is that, at a moment when we as a society should be showing contrition, our leaders have essentially expressed indifference to an extraordinary level of suffering. And that’s just the wrong message in terms of either our long-term security or peace in the Middle East.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Les Roberts, I would like to ask you something about the methodology of the study. Clearly in Iraq, as in most wars of this type, the level of violence is uneven across the country. It might not necessarily even correspond to the population densities of different areas. What was the methodology that you used to select the particular clusters that you chose?

LES ROBERTS: Sure. That’s a great question. And you’re right. In Iraq, there is a huge difference in death rates between, for example, the Kurdish north, which is relatively safe, and the Sunni Triangle, where the death rates are extremely high. And what we did was we got a population estimate of every government, from the Iraqi government, and we randomly allocated these 50 clusters that we were to go visit proportional to the population in each of those governments, so that, if in the Kurdish north there is only 20% of the population living in the couple safest provinces, we would naturally end up with a sample that’s 20% or so from that zone.

And then, once we had picked that we were going to visit two or three neighborhoods in a certain governance or province, we would then make a list of all the villages and towns and cities, and again randomly pick one of those to visit, so that big places had a larger chance of being visited than smaller places. And then, finally, when we got down to the village level or to the section of a city, we would pick a house at random, visit it and the other 39 houses closest to it to grab a cluster of 40 houses. And luckily, in the analysis, we can sort of look at how much variation there was between clusters.

And when we reported this, we didn’t say it was 655,000 deaths. We said it was 655,000 deaths, and we’re 95% sure it’s between about 400,000 and 950,000. And that range of imprecision is capturing that variance between neighborhoods that you described, some places having a lot of violence, and some not. So there is less than a 2 percent chance that the number is well below 400,000. So, you know, it’s not precise. It’s incredibly hard to do this kind of work in times of war, and I think that this is awfully good, given the conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Les Roberts, there are some, like a very much quoted analyst, Anthony Cordesman, who are saying this is just a matter of politics. You released this study right before the election. This isn’t science. It’s politics.

LES ROBERTS: Well, if I’m not mistaken, Anthony Cordesman was formerly a Pentagon official, and, you know, I think he probably has a political lens in what he says. But this study has been underway for most of a year, in terms of organizing and getting it all together. It was done in June through July. It took some time to get the data out of Iraq, because of the logistical troubles of moving people in and out. We analyzed it carefully. We submitted it to The Lancet quite a while ago, and The Lancet had control over when this came out.

And I think this is just a lose-lose situation. You know, if this had come out two weeks ago, people would be saying the same thing. If this came out in the months after or the two months after the next election, people in Iraq would see this as very political in timing. So, you know, any time within a several month window here, we were going to get this accusation, and I just think it’s bunk.

And more importantly, is it true? It is easy -- it’s going to be very easy for a couple of reporters to go out and verify our findings, because what we’ve said is the death rate is four times higher. And a reporter will only have to go to four or five different villages, go visit the person who takes care of the graveyard and say, “Back in 2002, before the war, how many bodies typically came in here per week? And now, how many bodies com in here?” And actually, most graveyard attendants keep records. And if the number is four times higher, on average, you’ll know we’re right. If the numbers are the same, you’ll know we’re wrong. It is going to be very easy for people to verify this and get all of this talk about whether it’s political out of the way, because the fundamental issue is, a certain number of Iraqis have died, and if our leaders are saying it’s ten times lower than it really is, we are driving a wedge between us and the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Les Roberts, I saw you Upstate New York a while ago, after your first study came out, and you commented on how little it was commented on or picked up here in this country, though cited all over the world. But now you have the report out in The Lancet, and you have the President Bush responding to it, even if he is discounting it. You’ve got General Casey responding to it. What about the U.S. press looking at these figures?

LES ROBERTS: You know, I think that -- this is just my opinion -- the U.S. press sort of follows public opinion. It doesn’t necessarily lead it, except in a few circumstances, like AIDS in Africa. And the public is ready to think, “Wow, things might be going badly in Iraq.” And I don’t think the public was ready to say that two years ago.

And so, when this study came out, Tony Blair was asked three times -- I’m sorry, the 2004 study came out, Tony Blair was asked three times in the week that followed, ‘What do you think of this estimate that 100,000 Iraqis had died in the first 18 months of occupation?” No one asked George Bush about how many civilians had died or about our study for 14 months after the study came out. And then, when he was asked, it was just by a member of the public in a forum in Philadelphia.

And now, within about four hours of the study coming out, he was asked directly, he was forced to respond, there was a dialogue going on. So, I think that the nation, as a whole, is more ready to honestly talk about Iraq, and that’s led the press to be more able to honestly talk about Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Les Roberts, thanks very much for joining us, co-author of the study on civilian mortality in Iraq since the invasion. He was with Johns Hopkins when he co-authored the study, has just moved on to Columbia University.