Senators try to tackle long-term costs of war

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 27, 2011 

WASHINGTON — 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 an explosive device during combat operations 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 lifetime 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 cost is uncertain, the head of one veterans group — the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — told senators that it could hit $1 trillion.

"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."

Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's chairwoman 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.

And 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."

"They have sacrificed life and limb in combat," she said. "And they have done all of this selflessly and with honor to our country. And the commitment we have to them is non-negotiable."

Nicely said she already is facing red tape in her daily struggle to care for her husband, a native of Arnold, Mo., who was just 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.

But despite his 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 Congressional Budget Office.

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, told senators that she wanted them to "feel my frustration and heartache" in dealing with the government's health care system for veterans.

"I'm sharing my personal experiences and feelings which I hope will be useful to you in creating a better system of support for wounded warriors and their families," she said.

She 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." And 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?"

ON THE WEB

A video of Todd Nicely going for a bicycle ride

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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