President Barack Obama’s top military adviser said U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are missing out on cutting-edge treatment, education and family services, even as 50,000 more head home this year.
“There’s a huge list of needs, growing needs,” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience at West Virginia University in Morgantown yesterday. “It can only be met, I believe, by communities throughout the country joined together” with the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs department “to get it right for those who’ve sacrificed so much.”
Mullen met with veterans, medical researchers and community assistance groups in New York, Pittsburgh and Morgantown in the past three days to find ways to fill the gap.
A challenge will arise as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, Mullen said.
“We are holding in an explosion of problems that we can’t even know what they are, because families are just sucking it up,” Mullen said April 19 at the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania.
The regional program has seen demand go “off the scale” for help with housing, jobs, education and health services, Executive Director Albert Mercer told Mullen in a garage-turned- meeting-room at the back of the non-profit organization.
The group’s 22 employees saw 5,000 veterans or family members last year, a 16 percent increase over 2008. Mercer expects a 20 percent climb this year. Subsidized housing for homeless veterans increased 31 percent last year.
The jobless rate among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars reached 14.7 percent in March, compared to the national average of 9.7 percent.
“It’s a different battle” when soldiers come home, said retired Sergeant Jeremy Feldbusch, 30, who was injured in Iraq and now is the national spokesman for the Jacksonville, Florida- based Wounded Warrior Project. He spoke at a forum with Mullen at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh.
Veterans, researchers and advocates appealed to Mullen at each stop for the Pentagon to overcome bureaucratic tendencies that block avenues of aid.
Officials at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has received $50 million in military funding, said they have difficulty finding the veterans who could use their developing technology. The center researches and uses techniques such as cell-based immunotherapy for hand transplants, vision improvement and regenerating muscle and tissue.
“In some ways, it increases our frustration because we know what we could do,” founding Director Alan Russell told Mullen, 63.
Marine Corporal Joshua Maloney illustrates a typical case. Maloney, 24, served two tours in Iraq. As a demolitions instructor at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, he lost his right hand in a blast. Rather than a prosthetic, he got a hand transplant at McGowan because, he told Mullen, “I was dating the right person, sir.”
His girlfriend’s aunt worked at a local hospital and happened to have a flyer about the center’s transplant research, Maloney said. He made the call and had the surgery more than a year ago.
“At eight months, I really started to get some feeling” in the hand, said Maloney, 24. “At nine months, I started playing PlayStation, and now I’m kicking everybody’s butt.”
One solution may be what Mullen’s medical services adviser, Colonel Chris Macedonia, calls a hospital without walls. It would help current soldiers and the newest veterans find and arrange the specialized treatment many need at facilities such as McGowan.
“It should not be incumbent on the patients to find the health care for themselves,” Macedonia said as he and Mullen toured the center on April 19.
In Morgantown, a state lawmaker told Mullen yesterday the legislature couldn’t get data from the VA or the Pentagon for a four-year study it is conducting to locate veterans and figure out what services they need.
Tens of thousands of veterans have returned from war with visible wounds, and hundreds of thousands have “invisible wounds,” Mullen told community leaders and students, many of them veterans, at Columbia University in New York on April 18.
“Their lives have changed forever,” Mullen said. “How do we as a country repay that debt?”