Opinion

SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2011

Editorial: VA should ‘suck it up’ and meet veterans’ mental health needs

The might of the U.S. military is unparalleled, but the destruction this nation can unleash is a double-edged sword.

“Support the troops,” we say, in advocating for the missions and the weaponry needed over there.

But after troops have absorbed the psychological trauma from the searing devastation, they do return and a different war begins – the one inside their heads.

Americans have grown accustomed to thanking troops for their service. It’s a nice change from the vitriol some Vietnam veterans endured. But they need more than a pat on the back, and our government is failing to deliver.

On the mental health front, progress has been painfully slow. The military culture of “sucking it up” has been part of the problem, but medical care has been lacking, too. Though 6,500 returning veterans kill themselves annually – an average of 18 a day – the lumbering Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to respond adequately.

And so the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals put the hammer down on May 10, ruling that the VA’s delays in treating combat-related mental illnesses were so egregious that it constituted a violation of veterans’ constitutional rights. The court didn’t want to take charge, but over a two-year period efforts to accelerate government action were unsatisfactory. The court cited a paucity of suicide prevention officers and poor screening and tracking mechanisms.

The evidence of inaction has struck close to home. Twenty-one veterans in the Spokane VA service area from July 2007 to July 2008 committed suicide. Fourteen of them sought help from a medical center, VA records show. Those regional numbers have tapered off since the issue gained publicity, but the national toll from these hidden wounds had grown so shamefully large, the court felt compelled to step in.

“The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough; no more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligations,” the ruling said.

Now the government can respond to the order to overhaul the VA to meet these critical mental health needs and to more quickly process disability claims, or it can appeal the decision and try to wriggle out of its responsibilities.

Stop the retreat. Support the troops.

They’ve earned it and it’s long overdue.

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