Veterans who have risked their lives for their country on the battlefield often confront another insidious foe once they return to home: an overbearing, uncaring and duplicitous Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy that can inflict nearly as much pain and suffering under a barrage of paperwork as any bullet or improvised explosive device. That's the conclusion of a scathing 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals ruling this month that attacked the VA for its climate of "unchecked incompetence," which holds up well-earned benefits in a cruel waiting game to delay providing services in the expectation needy veterans will die, often by their own hand, before they get what their country owes them.
It is estimated that 18 veterans commit suicide every day and another 1,000 veterans attempt to take their lives every month — a tragic reminder of the unrelenting byproduct of combat long after the soldiers have been off the battlefield. But many of these lives might be spared if only the VA did not subject veterans seeking benefits and treatment, as the court noted, to the agency's "labyrinthine process" of applying for the services they are entitled to receive.
The ruling, which overturned a 2008 federal court verdict, noted one out of three returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often serving multiple deployments, seeks some form of mental health counseling service from the VA. And for good reason, since veterans are 3.2 times as likely to commit suicide as the general population.
That help can be long in coming, as the court noted during one six- month period in 2008 when more than 85,000 veterans were on a waiting list for mental health services. It is a wait that can take as long as 1,419 days, or 3.9 years, to deal the bureaucratic paperwork challenge of filing a claim, getting it approved and then confronting a draconian appeals process if the claim is denied.
Indeed, during one six-month period the court examined, 1,467 veterans died while their VA appeals for service were pending. It shouldn't take years to honor the service of the nation's men and women in uniform, who have given so much and only ask of their government to be helped in coping with the mental scars of war.
In ordering the VA to simplify and speed up the claims process, the court should finally accomplish what the government has so abysmally failed to recognize — namely that a troubled mind left untreated can often pose a threat as deadly to our veterans as any enemy hiding in the shadows.