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Iraq Veterans Sue Government Over Disabilities

steve_edwards.jpgIraq War veteran Steve Edwards (pictured at right) has an interesting story to tell, and he'll get his chance to tell it -- in a court of law.

It took a few seconds for an Iraqi roadside bomb to rattle Sergeant Steve Edwards' head in December 2004. But it took 14 months for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to compensate him for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During one stretch, Edwards called the VA weekly to plead for assistance. "I was saying we're about to be homeless," he says, "and all I got was some schmuck on the other line who says they're trying their best."

Now Edwards, along with hundreds of thousands of other veterans, is part of class action lawsuit against the VA asserting that that just isn't good enough. Filed Monday by a California public interest group and law firm on behalf of vets diagnosed with PTSD, the suit is the first to accuse the federal department of constitutional violations and to seek sweeping changes in its processing of disability claims. The VA is charged with "shameful failures ... to meet our nation's legal and moral obligations to honor and care for our wounded veterans" who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without systematic reform, the suit contends, "the costs to these veterans, their families and our nation will be incalculable," and will contribute to a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans and a burden on local social services.

Melissa Kaznitz, managing attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a Berkeley nonprofit organization that is representing the vets, says the suit focuses on PTSD as a signature wound of ongoing wars. No court has previously been asked to order a systematic restructuring of the claims process at the VA, Kaznitz says, adding, "The VA has a culture of fighting the claims of veterans instead of fixing problems for the veteran. We're trying to fix the system."

The VA has seen its backlog of disability claims swell to 600,000 as soldiers return from ongoing wars, a logjam blamed for financial dislocation, despair and even suicides of vets. The suit says the claims system is "riddled with inconsistent and irrational procedures" that violate the due process rights of injured vets seeking care and compensation. For example, the VA employs the same officials both to challenge and judge claims.

According to the suit, the biggest casualties of this bureaucratic morass are the unprecedented number of troops returning with PTSD, a mental disorder especially prevalent in soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they're faced with multiple tours of duty, invisible battle lines and the "moral ambiguity of killing combatants dressed as civilians." The military says more than a third of the 1.6 million men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan report mental health issues ranging from PTSD to brain injuries, yet only 27 of the nation's 1,400 VA hospitals have programs dedicated to treating PTSD. Worse yet, the complex process of applying for disability payments is especially daunting for these patients, who often experience memory lapses and disorientation.

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Editors: Lee Ward, Larkin, Paul S Hooson, and Steve Crickmore

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