Column: Dispatches from the Edge: A Tale of Malice and Mold

By Conn Hallinan
Friday March 16, 2007

“It’s the same the whole world over 

It’s the poor wot gets the blame 

It’s the rich wot gets the gravy 

Ain’t it all a bleeding shame.” 


World War I British soldiers sang that little ditty as they marched off to the horrors of the Marne and Flanders. The wounded vets in Walter Reed Hospital—living in run-down rooms infested with rodents, cockroaches and mold—could chime in with their own version of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s blood.” Because the current scandal is not about Bush administration incompetence, it’s about a simple trade-off: profits over bandages. 

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired Army Secretary Francis Harvey following the Washington Post’s devastating revelations, Gates said he did so because the Army has shown “not enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.” 

But “addressing” the problem will require jettisoning former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s high-tech subsidies to the nation’s arms makers at the expense of the grunts, as well as the White House’s mania for privatization. 

Harvey was brought in by Rumsfeld specifically to reduce the federal work force and, as he said in a speech last year, “improve efficiency.” A former executive for the one of the nation’s leading arms producers, Westinghouse, Harvey hired IAP Worldwide Services—run by two former Halliburton executives—which promptly reduced the number of people providing service at Walter Reed from 300 to 60. The cutback and resulting increase in workloads kicked off an exodus of trained personnel, which an in-hospital study just released by the House Committee on Oversight and Governance found could lead to “mission failure.”  

While President Bush has railed about “red tape” and “bureaucracy” as the source of the problem—Republican metaphors for government—the administration has actually allowed veterans’ health care to lag behind civilian care. And more cuts, plus a funding freeze by 2010, are on the boards.  

In contrast are the way the “Big Five” arms companies, Lockheed Martin. Northup Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon are treated. The first three of the above “Five” will corner one out of every four dollars in the $481.5 billion military budget. 

In turn, the companies pony up tens of millions in contributions by Election Day. Since 2000, Lockheed Martin, Northup Grumman and General Dynamics have poured $62.5 million into the election cycles, favoring Republicans at a rate of a little more than two to one. 

Someone always has to pay for these handouts, and in this case it’s the vets. Take the disability scandal.  

A recent study by Army Times found that the Army is systematically shortchanging wounded soldiers by keeping their disability ratings low. According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of soldiers approved for full disability benefits fell from 642 in 2001 to 209 in 2005, in spite of a huge influx of wounded and disabled from the Iraq War.  

If soldiers are rated 30 percent or more disabled they are entitled to disability retirement pay, medical benefits and commissary privileges where prices for goods are significantly lower than in the civilian market. A rating below 30 percent means they get severance pay and no benefits. 

What the Army (and Navy, Marines and Air Force) are doing is deliberately low-balling the disability ratings and then throwing up roadblocks to force soldiers into the Veterans Administration (VA). While the VA does generally raise the disability ratings, the Army saves money because the VA designation does not come with commissary and exchange privileges, or military health care. 

In one case, a Marine was discharged for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at 10 percent disability. Using the same information that was used in the Marines Corps’ determination, the VA rated him at 50 percent disability. 

If the Army rates soldiers lower than 30 percent, and those soldiers develop disabling conditions after they are discharged, tough. They can go to the VA, but besides their severance pay, they get no more money from the Army. 

This is not about big bucks. In 2004, the Army paid out $1.3 billion in disability benefits to some 90,000 soldiers. The current war in Iraq is costing approximately $8 billion a month. 

What Army Times found was that soldiers, uninformed that they could appeal their disability rating, accepted the first rating they were offered. “Soldiers are trained,” says Ron Smith, deputy general counsel for Disabled American Veterans. “When the evaluation board says, ‘this is what you get,’ the soldiers say, ‘Yes sir.’ A lot of people don’t appeal.” 

Indeed, only one in 10 challenge their assigned rating. 

What the boards are very eager to do is put soldiers on “temporary disability retirement” that reduces their basic pay and tosses them out of hospitals. That category has jumped four-fold between 2001 and 2005.  

Most of these vets go home—they are on “temporary disability” for 18 months before they are reevaluated again—to find there are either no services available for them or that such services are hundreds of miles away. According to an Associated Press study of soldiers killed in Iraq, almost 50 percent come from towns of fewer than 25,000, and 20 percent from towns of less than 5,000.  

Not only are these towns small, they are poor. Almost 75 percent of the dead came from towns whose inhabitants earned below the mean per capita national income, and more than half from towns where poverty rates topped the national average.  

When veteran advocates complained about the disability issue, Pentagon spokesperson Marine Major Stewart Upton responded with the verbal equivalent of the “fog of war”: “We are in the midst of a business-process review that will generate improvements to the program effectiveness, including timeliness goals for processing cases and standard definitions of start and end points as well as other metrics to ensure that progress can be accurately measured over time against common metrics.”  

Squalor and disability rip-offs are just a part of the way that the Pentagon is shortchanging vets. According to findings released by the American Psychological Assn., the military’s mental health system is so overwhelmed that returning vets and their families are not getting the help they need. 

While more than three out of 10 returning solders from Iraq and Afghanistan have a “mental disorder,” a special task force found there was “no evidence of a well-coordinated or well-disseminated approach to providing behavioral health care to service members and their families.”  

Some 40 percent of the psychologist slots in the Army and Navy are unfilled, which not only means vets and their families don’t get seen, but that the psychological staff on the job is overwhelmed. According to the study, 33 percent of the mental health staff is burned out, and another 27 percent reports “low motivation for their work.” 

When the vets go home, there are even fewer mental health resources, and between 80 to 90 percent of the caregivers are not trained to deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I know guys who are dealing with doctors who have no concept of PSTD,” Russell Terry, chief executive officer of the Iraq War Veterans Organization told the Houston Chronicle. 

Screwing the vets isn’t incompetence; it’s a trade off. If someone gets the gravy, someone gets the shaft.