President Obama’s unannounced 7,000 mile visit to Afghanistan on Monday concluded with an agreement that will keep US troops in country until 2024. Citing the need to stand with Afghan security forces as they ‘stand up’ to the ongoing challenges of the Taliban, tribal chieftains, and others hostile to Hamid Karzai’s tenuous rule, the President has committed the United States to a long term presence in Afghanistan.
Some will find cause to praise this latest agreement between Washington and Kabul. Others will find good reason to be critical. But, what is at stake is far greater than the cynical partisan bickering that is sure to follow in an election year. What is at stake is the welfare of the men and women of the United States military deployed to Afghanistan. And our military service members are suffering the ongoing cost of war associated with their multiple deployments.
More than ten years since the war on terror began, more than 1 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have been deployed to combat zones. The expenditure of blood and treasure is staggering. Over one trillion dollars have been spent, more than 6,000 Americans have been killed in action, and nearly 50,000 service members have been wounded in action. As difficult as these numbers may be to understand, the numbers of service members who have returned with physical and mental health injuries that require ongoing treatment is manifold higher. Indeed, according to a recent New York Times story, over half of returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan being treated by the Veterans Administration are receiving care for mental health problems. According to USA Today, the most common cause for hospitalization for US troops in 2009 was mental health issues. Perhaps most tragic of all, however, is the recent Army Times report that each day 18 veterans are committing suicide. Last year more veterans took their own lives than have been killed in the 11 years of combat since the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The Veterans Administration is charged with providing care for our veteran population. And while it is true that far too many retirees do not take advantage of the opportunities for care provided by the VA, it is also true that the organization is not meeting the growing demand. According to a recent Inspector General’s report, the VA had misrepresented the amount of time it takes for a veteran to get mental health care. According to the investigation, the average wait for a comprehensive mental health assessment was 50 days; not the 14 days reported by the Veterans Administration.
Senator Patty Murray, Chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee expressed her concern with the findings of the Inspector General, “This report confirms what we have long been hearing, that our veterans are waiting far too long to get the mental health care they so desperately need.” Senator Murray rightly concluded, “Getting our veterans timely mental health care can quite frankly often be the difference between life and death.”
With many of our service members serving multiple times in support of the war on terror it is no wonder that the physical and mental health toll is so high. That the President has committed us to twelve more years in Afghanistan ignores the consequences our military service members will have to endure. Enough is enough.
Dr. Wayne Lesperance is a Professor of Political Science at New England College.