Injured vets wonder if country will now sacrifice for them
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...
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Fuel efficiency: The Obama administration and major auto manufacturers have reached a deal to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks between 2017 and 2025. The agreement would require U.S. vehicle fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which represents a 50 percent cut in greenhouse gases and a 40 percent reduction in fuel consumption compared with today's vehicles. Obama plans to announce the new fuel standards Friday.
FBI chief: The Senate extended the term of FBI Director Robert Mueller for up to two years, a day after President Obama signed legislation making an exception to the 10-year limit for an FBI chief to serve. The vote was 100-0.
Endangered species: The House backed an amendment by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., that would allow the Interior Department to continue adding new species to the Endangered Species Act. A spending bill backed by Republican leaders would have allowed only the removal of species from the endangered list.
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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 a bomb during combat against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
But she'd 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-care cost is uncertain, the head of one veterans group — the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — told senators it could hit $1 trillion.
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released at the hearing projected that, through the year 2020, the annual federal costs will jump from the 2010 level of $1.9 billon to between $5.5 billion and $8.4 billion annually by 2020.
"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."
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.
Murray said veterans must not suffer as members of Congress bicker over the nation's debt and deficit, "no matter how heated the rhetoric here in Washington, D.C., gets."
Studies show that the peak years for government health-care and disability-compensation costs for veterans from past wars came 30 to 40 years after those wars ended. For Vietnam, that peak has not been reached.
With an annual budget of more than $125 billion, the Department of Veterans Affairs runs a nationwide health-care system that cares for more than 8 million people who have left military service, of which about 700,000 are from the current wars. The agency also administers disability compensation for millions of veterans wounded in service.
Estimating the long-term costs of those programs is a complex, contentious art, and no one inside the government does it beyond 10 years. But independent and government experts agree that for a variety of reasons the costs are just about certain to continue rising, even though large numbers of World War II and Korean War veterans are dying.
The reasons have much to do with improvements in battlefield medicine and equipment. More troops today are surviving injuries: 90 percent, up from 86 percent in Vietnam, according to the CBO. But that also means that more troops are coming home with complex and severe wounds.
Moreover, nearly one in five service members returning from deployment are thought to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a study by the RAND Corp. A similar number are thought to have sustained traumatic brain injury. Though not all seek help, a significant percentage are expected to receive care from the veterans system, in part because of efforts to reduce the stigma of mental-health problems in the military.
Further adding to strains on the department, more young veterans have been seeking care from the system than had been widely anticipated — possibly because they do not have private health insurance. Outreach efforts by the veterans department and veterans groups may have also increased enrollment, experts say.
Linda Bilmes, a Harvard academic who has done extensive research on the impact of the wars, said all those factors together suggest that "the actual cost over 30, 40 or 50 years will be even higher than we projected. And with life expectancy getting longer, the cost will probably peak later than in past wars."
Though there is strong bipartisan support for veterans programs, some budget proposals, including from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., have called for trimming some benefits for veterans and military retirees.
"Those proposals have been batted back so far," said David Autry of the Disabled American Veterans. "But we've got more vigorous budget hawks today. If they are willing to bring the nation to the brink of insolvency, who knows what else they might do?"
Nicely said she is facing red tape in her daily struggle to care for her husband, a native of Arnold, Mo., who was 26 at the time of the explosion.
Todd Nicely, a corporal who was leading a squad of 12 infantry Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he was injured, is adjusting to life with prosthetics. One of only three surviving quadruple amputees in the Marine Corps, he pedaled 11 miles on his bicycle in just under an hour Saturday.
Despite her husband's progress, Crystal Nicely told senators that he can do little without someone at his side and that she is considering "the very expensive life that lies ahead for my husband and me."
So far, 1.3 million of the 2.3 million active-duty military personnel and reservists who have been deployed to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have become eligible for the VA's health-care services, said Heidi Golding, principal analyst for military and veterans' compensation with the .
Through the end of March, Golding said, nearly 1,570 service members had required amputations. The most common medical conditions diagnosed were musculoskeletal disorders and mental-health problems.
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, more than 4 percentage points 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.
"These numbers, while bleak, are really just the tip of the iceberg," Rieckhoff said. "The legacy of these wars will be cumulative impacts of the multiple deployments, year after year, a burden of many carried by few."
Crystal Nicely, a Kansas native, said coordination of her husband's care has been problematic, with "so many coordinators that they are actually not all on the same page and sometimes doing things opposite of each other."
At one point, she said, a narrative summary of how her husband was injured "sat on someone's desk for almost 70 days waiting for a very simple approval," which didn't come until Murray intervened on Nicely's behalf.
"It should not take my talking with a United States senator to make that happen," she said. "More importantly, what about all the other wounded Marines who have not had the chance to ask for that kind of help?"
Material from The New York Times and Seattle Times staff is included in this report.
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