Addressing the needs of our wounded soldiers

Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Just as Alaskans and other Americans are tightening their belts and eliminating unnecessary spending in these tough economic times, President Barack Obama has proposed to do the same with the federal budget.

Unfortunately, some of the budget cuts proposed earlier this month show a lack of understanding of Alaska's unique needs by federal budget-writers. That's why I'll be working with members of Congress of both political parties in coming weeks to educate them about Alaska's key role in America's defense, about Third World conditions in much of rural Alaska and about continued recovery of West Coast salmon stocks.

Saying he was "ushering in a new era of responsibility," the president's $3.7 trillion budget for fiscal year 2010 proposes bold new investments to lift our economy out of recession, especially for education, health care and renewable energy. At the same time, the budget cuts taxpayer waste by eliminating duplicative programs or those that simply don't work.

The budget brings non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest level as a share of Gross Domestic Product since 1962, and is projected to cut the deficit in half by 2012.

There is much in the budget Alaskans should like, including:

• Growing the economy. The budget provides Making Work Pay tax cuts for 300,000 Alaska families of up to $800. To encourage economic growth, it eliminates capital gains taxes for some small businesses.

To address deteriorating roads and bridges, it establishes a national infrastructure bank to fund improvements. It invests $1 billion into expanding broadband Internet access, especially to rural areas.

• Improving schools. The president would make permanent the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit for those already attending college. Some $40 million more would be available to strengthen student achievement in low-income areas and another $14 million invested in new teacher training and recruitment.

• Reducing health care costs. More than 209,000 Alaskans lack health insurance, while rising health care costs take $9,300 from the average Alaskan paycheck each year.

The president proposes an unprecedented $635 billion "down payment" on health care reform to reduce costs, boost quality, expand coverage and preserve the ability to choose your own doctor. The budget also helps make prescriptions more affordable and streamlines the approval of generics.

• Strengthen our military. President Obama recognizes the vital role Alaska plays in the nation's defense. His budget calls for massive new investments totaling $318 million into Alaska bases, including $200 million at Fairbanks' Fort Wainwright, $51 million at Anchorage's Fort Richardson, $40 million at Elmendorf Air Force Base and $14 million in Clear Air Force Station near Nenana.

Much of that funding is for Warrior Transition Units at Wainwright and Richardson and a new mental health clinic at Elmendorf, all to help care for Alaska's wounded warriors.

The budget calls for a nearly 3 percent pay raise for our servicemen and women and increases funding for veterans' health care and benefits by $25 billion, which will help Alaska's 75,000 veterans.

Despite these commendable investments, the administration's budget-writers propose to eliminate some essential services and programs in Alaska. Many of these have been proposed for reduction by previous presidents, so it's now up to those of us in Alaska's congressional delegation and other Alaskans to educate national policy-makers about our state's unique needs.

Here are the ill-advised cuts I'm focused on fixing:

• Rural Alaska needs. At a time when many rural villages face 50 percent or higher unemployment and skyrocketing energy costs, cuts to the Denali Commission, to Village Safe Water and for job training simply make no sense. From improving health care and small harbors to helping reduce energy costs, the innovative efforts of the Denali Commission should be expanded, not pared back.

• Missile defense. Fort Greely near Delta Junction is home to the vital ground-based missile defense system. The system is designed to intercept missiles bound for Alaska and other parts of North America launched by rogue nations.

Thirty of the missiles are scheduled for deployment by the end of 2009, and the Defense Department has proposed stopping then instead of deploying the full complement of 44 missiles. This is short sighted at best, especially when North Korea has demonstrated its ability to launch deadly weapons capable of hitting America.

• Salmon protection. Alaska has done an excellent job managing our wild salmon stocks but scientific research and habitat protection throughout the west coast states is threatened by a proposed budget provision that would lump the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund in with national efforts to protect endangered species.

I have joined with senators from Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho to oppose this and preserve the fund for salmon habitat and restoration.

Now is the time to let Alaskans' voice be heard as Congress takes up President Obama's budget, with both its good and bad news for Alaska.

M y brother, Jim, was a soldier once, but when he died, at age 53, he was long past the time when anyone called him a hero. He died alone, in poverty, alienated from family and friends, his life and death complicated by war wounds that penetrated far deeper than the pieces of shrapnel that won him his Purple Heart. Jim was a Vietnam combat engineer who survived the war but later became another kind of statistic - a lost soul, a veteran who never recovered from his experiences.

Jim didn't seek help, nor did the Army offer it during his 20-year military career. Instead, to try to deal with his pain, he began to drink. He was forced into retirement when he was 37, with nothing but a drawer full of medals, a subsistence-level pension and a crushed spirit.

We hear a lot of talk about post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting troops and veterans. To its credit, the military has tried to update its attitudes and systems to accommodate the growing number of traumatized soldiers returning from our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But PTSD is still viewed as an abnormal response to battlefield trauma rather than the reaction of a normal person to the horrors of war. And so the stigma remains.

Tragically, it is often left to individual soldiers and veterans to seek help. Many are career military, as my brother was, and they fear the dishonor associated with a diagnosis of PTSD.

And when veterans do file a claim, the process is so convoluted, humiliating and intimidating that it creates fresh emotional wounds. The Department of Veterans Affairs places claimants in the position of having to relive the trauma, analyze its impact and recall names, dates and places that may be months or years in the past. The lengthy filing form includes a detailed essay on the exact event that caused PTSD.

But PTSD is not like a shrapnel wound that pierces the skin at a precise moment. It may develop over time and not be evident for years or even decades after the fact. There are so many roadblocks on the way to a successful PTSD claim that some veterans just give up. Some die before their claims have made it through the process. Some commit suicide.

Imagine how different this bleak picture might look if professional mental health screening were required for all troops, both before and after combat - along with an adequate force of trained psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to meet the demand. It's an obvious first step, but it would require an organizational and financial commitment from Congress, the VA and the current administration. Unfortunately, for most people, PTSD is an abstraction. The lonely battle of lobbying for better services is mostly left to independent veterans groups and families of the afflicted.

There is a significant disconnect between what we say about supporting our troops and what we actually do. We seem to despise the weakness of the wounded soldier, especially when it is manifested by mental illness, social alienation or undefined degenerative diseases. Today's war heroes too often become tomorrow's poor, many living in rundown apartment complexes around military bases, where they can squeeze out discounts for their essential needs.

We buried Jim on Sept. 10, 2001, and barely had a chance to grieve when thoughts of our brother were blown from our minds. A new war was engaged, with an army of fresh names and faces. The familiar chant spilled out from the soul of a nation blind to its meaning: Support our troops. Now, as so many of our brave soldiers make their long journey home, the question remains: Can we give dignity in peace?

• Whitney is the author of "Soldiers Once: My Brother and the Lost Dreams of America's Veterans."

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