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Senators try to get handle on long-term care costs of war

WASHINGTON — Crystal Nicely said she doesn't mind serving as the chief cook, driver and groomer for her husband, Todd, who lost both arms and legs in March 2010 when he stepped on an explosive device during combat operations against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

But she would appreciate a little more help from the federal government.

"What is upsetting is the lack of support, compassion and benefits for these individuals," Nicely, 25, told a Senate committee Wednesday. "It needs to be just a little easier."

Nicely told her family's story as the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee began examining the lifelong human and financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what additional preparations will be required to care for the 2.3 million veterans who have fought them.

While the exact long-term cost is uncertain, the head of one veterans group — the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — told senators that it could hit $1 trillion.

"The costs are clear, and they are tremendous," said Paul Rieckhoff, the group's executive director, who served as an infantry platoon leader with the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. "But so is the sacrifice these men and women have made for our nation."

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who called the hearing, said a half-million veterans from the two wars already have found their way into the system operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, an increase of more than 100 percent since 2008.

"This presents a big challenge — and one that we have no choice but to step up to meet if we are going to avoid many of the same mistakes we saw with the Vietnam generation," she said.

Rieckhoff said Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing a readjustment to civilian life that "isn't pretty."

Among the statistics he cited: 13.3 percent are unemployed, higher than the national average; more than 11,000 veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are homeless; and the military and veteran community is facing a "suicide epidemic," with 468 suicides in 2010 alone, meaning there were more suicides than combat victims.

Senators try to get handle on long-term care costs of war 07/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:32pm]
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