Sgt. Briggs's War

Bob Briggs got a head full of shrapnel in Iraq. Then he came home to more wars: to regain the use of his half-paralyzed body, and to get the U.S. government to pay for his medical care.

Paul Rieckhoff of Operation Truth claims that the lengthy runaround the Briggses encountered is not really unusual at all. Once a soldier transitions from the DoD to the VA, he notes, there is no one to help him or her navigate the dual bureaucracies. "There's a major gap there," Rieckhoff says. "Sometimes people give up. They stop trying to fight the bureaucracy. If you don't have posttraumatic stress disorder by the time you get to the VA, you probably have it by the time you leave."

But the greater problem is the sheer shortage of VA resources to deal with the new wave of vets entering the system, wounded and otherwise. To date, more than 430,000 of the 1.2 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been discharged, and 120,000 of those have gone on to require care at the VA.

"They've dangerously underestimated just about every number throughout this war," Rieckhoff says, "from the number of troops we need on the ground to the number of pieces of body armor to the number of armored Humvees. And when it comes to the VA, they've also underestimated the number of beds we're going to need, the number of counselors, the number of paper pushers. If you figure maybe a third have gotten out so far and the VA is already overwhelmed, what's going to happen when the others come home?"

In April of this year, after reports from VA medical facilities that inadequate funding was hurting veterans' care, VA secretary Jim Nicholson wrote in a congressional report: "I can assure you that the VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005 to continue to provide the timely, quality service that is always our goal. We will, as always, continue to monitor workload and resources to be sure that we have a sustainable balance. But certainly for the remainder of this year, I do not foresee any challenges that are not solvable within our own management decision capability."

Two months later, Nicholson confirmed that there was a $1 billion shortfall in a roughly $30 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2006, which began October 1, and on June 30, the house passed $975 million in emergency spending for the VA. And a month after that, in July, the VA acknowledged that it needed an additional $300 million to fund FY 2005.

Critics have called Nicholson another egregious example of Bush administration cronyism. Prior to heading the VA, Nicholson had never held a position with any veterans' organization or the DoD. Instead, the Vietnam vet and Denver lawyer/real-estate developer's résumé includes a stint as U.S Ambassador to the Vatican, and one as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000.

In June 2004, Bush signed an executive order requiring the VA to establish a center for faith-based and community initiatives. The Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to reveal how much of the budget is being spent on these initiatives. However, in April of this year, the VA forked over $4.9 million for a $21 million Catholic Charities housing project for homeless vets and outpatients. The announcement came not long after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that wounded vets in Illinois have been receiving the lowest disability payments in the country since 1934.

As a result of the severe injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan and an aging veteran population, many Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) vets have complained of a long wait time for care in the VA system. Tales of interminable clinic visits—Briggs says he has waited up to five hours to be seen for eye appointments—and of weeks- or months-long delays in getting doctor's appointments are common. The Department of Veterans Affairs claims that in August of this year, 94 percent of appointments for OIF/OEF were within 30 days of the veteran's desired appointment. Of the 101,235 disability claims filed since 9/11, 72,910 have been processed and 28,325 are still pending. Of the claims processed, 64,810 were granted service-connected benefits for one or more claimed condition, and 8,100 were denied.

THE LAST TIME I visit Bob and Michelle Briggs at the VA, shortly before his scheduled trip to Washington for surgery, the improvement in his mobility since we first met in August is tremendous. His left arm has gained some mobility, and he tries to move it from his lap to the handle of his wheelchair. "He's showing off now," Michelle jokes.

His spirits are better, too, he says, because after much experimentation, they've finally found a seizure medication that doesn't make him too drowsy. He's also on antidepressants, which have moderated his mood swings. "He's still real up and down," Michelle confirms. "Most people coming back, even though they're not being diagnosed, they have some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. How can they not?"

Briggs is slowly regaining his memory of the night of the blast, but the visions he had in those first days after he was blown up, when he was near death, are still crystalline. "You didn't want to be near my bed," he says. "I thought I was in Iraq. I kept seeing things." He says he recently visited the Indian Trading Post in Shakopee to try to get a better understanding of what the visions meant. He won't tell me what he saw. "I don't really like to talk about it," he says apologetically.

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