Lawmakers visit Afghanistan to understand veterans’ needs

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan showed freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif., a hint of what's to come in a war whose costs will keep accumulating for decades.

Accompanied by four House colleagues, three of them doctors, Denham spent last weekend touring Bagram and other Afghanistan bases. Although brief, the trip put the lawmakers face-to-face with the war's extended health-care price tag.

"It's obviously going to be a huge expense," Denham said Thursday. "It's undefined, but the one thing that is defined is that we have to take care of the veteran."

The bills already are piling up.

More than 513,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had filed for disability benefits as of last year. Some of these war-disabled are obvious, such as the approximately 1,600 who have had one or more limbs amputated. Some wounds are hidden, such as those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.

Nearly one in five of the more than 2 million veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from mental health conditions, according to a study released earlier this month by an advocacy group called Veterans for Common Sense.

Paying these disability benefits from the two wars will cost U.S. taxpayers between $355 billion and $534 billion over the next four decades, Harvard researcher Linda J. Bilmes estimated last year. Medical care for these veterans will cost an additional $201 billion to $348 billion over 40 years, Bilmes estimated.

"We'll have a huge legacy cost," acknowledged Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. "We have to address that now, and 'fess up to the fact that we'll have a legacy cost."

A former Army battalion surgeon, Roe led the congressional delegation, which included four Republicans and a Democrat. Four of the delegation members, including Denham, serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and the lawmakers' focus was more on what will become of the U.S. troops now serving than on the future of Afghanistan itself.

"I want to make sure our veterans are taken care of, once they get home," Denham said.

Denham and his colleagues departed quietly from Washington, D.C., last Thursday and held over for a day in Turkey before reaching Kabul. They were briefed by Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and flew by Black Hawk helicopter to a Marine base called Camp Leatherneck and another base called Camp Pasab.

"The idea was to go to the tip of the spear, to where the injuries occur," Roe said.

The trip to Afghanistan was Denham's first to the country since he took office in January. In August, public records show, he joined a number of other House members in a week-long trip to Israel, courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation.

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