The nation has a checkered history of helping its veterans cope with the mental anguish of war. That's why the new rules unveiled this summer by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would expand traumatic stress-related benefits, are so important for tens of thousands of military families and their communities. The nation has an obligation to help returning veterans make the transition back to peaceful society.
The department is easing rules that required service members to document an experience — such as a bomb blast or firefight — to qualify for posttraumatic stress disorder benefits. This change is overdue. Veterans have complained for years that it was difficult if not impossible to trace their trauma to a specific event. They could be left to go without if their trauma could not be pegged to a battlefield experience. And the military could be no help. It had other priorities besides helping these returning veterans integrate into civilian society.
The new rules could vastly improve the lives of thousands of young families. Veterans could be eligible for posttraumatic stress benefits by showing proof that they served in a war zone or in a capacity that could have resulted in traumatic stress. Women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in so-called "noncombat" roles could finally receive benefits for the traumatic conditions that haunt them. These wars have no front line, and the nation should not maintain an artificial one at home.
The VA will need to protect against fraud by establishing a fair, uniform process to verify claims. Counseling and disability payments should have the goal of making these veterans more self-sufficient. The agency may need to hire additional staff; one veterans group said the VA had approved only about half the 150,000 posttraumatic stress disorder cases diagnosed from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The appeals process also needs to be easy to understand and navigate.
Service members in Iraq and Afghanistan have been scarred not only by the unpredictable nature of guerrilla warfare, but by the disruption caused by long and repeated deployments. The VA will need to confront the impact this has caused military families and their communities. Helping more veterans deal with the trauma is a big first step.