Shinseki On Efforts To Help Troops Returning From War

On this Veteran's Day, Steve Inskeep talks with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki about his efforts to improve the lives of veterans. We ask what this administration has done to improve mental health resources for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, all this year American troops have been coming home from Iraq. Many have also returned from Afghanistan, though the total forces there have been increasing. Many Americans who leave the service become the responsibility of the man we'll hear next on this Veterans Day.

Retired U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki is now President Obama's Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and his department is straining to look after the veterans of many wars.

Not so long ago, a newspaper in California called the Bay Citizen studied death records for veterans in the state of California.

General ERIC SHINSEKI (Secretary of Veterans Affairs): Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: Veterans died at a more rapid rate after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan than died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. SHINSEKI: As a result of?

INSKEEP: Well, a variety of causes - suicides, motor vehicle accidents.

Gen. SHINSEKI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What do you think is happening there?

Gen. SHINSEKI: I don't know that I have enough insights, but it parallels a little bit of my experience when I was still serving in uniform, where you take a unit on a very, very difficult operation, you come back, there is a tendency for these kinds of things to occur, the motorcycle accidents, the driving long hours, trying to get as much living in on a weekend and trying to make it back on a Sunday night, early Monday morning, to the first work day formation. But the suicides always get our attention, because this ties back very clearly to some of the exposures to stress that go on in an operation.

INSKEEP: So there seems to be some a problem with suicides here and also a problem with just high-risk behavior coming back from war.

Gen. SHINSEKI: I think that's true. I think it's compounded by the stress, the trauma that goes with the current operations, where we have a much smaller military being asked to do so much and then repeat it tour after tour. I think you know there are 23 million veterans in this country; a little over eight million are enrolled with us. So I know the suicide numbers are up, but exactly how to quantify that in this large population - unable to do that right now.

INSKEEP: It may be startling to some people to realize that the backlog - if that's the proper word - pending cases, pending disability claims at the VA, has soared in this year and is now above 700,000.

Gen. SHINSEKI: It is. It was last year when we talked probably four to five hundred thousand.

INSKEEP: What happened?

Gen. SHINSEKI: Last year, 2009, we pushed out 977,000 cases. Closed them out and these were completed. And then we got a million cases back in. These are new cases, for the most part, that have been turned over.

INSKEEP: I want to just summarize what you're saying. You're telling me you have increased your capacity to deal with new cases.

Gen. SHINSEKI: That's correct.

INSKEEP: That the number of new cases has increased even faster than your capacity has increased.

Gen. SHINSEKI: That is correct, by significant numbers.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if there are people in the economic hard times in the last couple of years who maybe of couple of years ago did not need your services. They had health care through a job that no longer exists, or they, in spite of whatever disability or problem they had, they had a passable employment situation and now they don't.

Gen. SHINSEKI: That's a good point. Over the past probably 18 months, the economic downturn has had that impact on families. And homelessness - we have committed to ending homelessness in five years, so...

INSKEEP: How you doing?

Gen. SHINSEKI: We're doing fine, just not going fast enough.

INSKEEP: How have you been dealing differently than in the past with post-traumatic stress disorder?

Gen. SHINSEKI: I think a year ago we had a couple examples where we had a couple of young veterans who had difficulty getting through the PTSD disability process.

INSKEEP: Just getting approved as someone who had PTSD because of what happened to them in the military.

Gen. SHINSEKI: In combat, and were denied when they submitted a claim. Well, I think you know since then we have put in place that if you serve in a combat zone the presumption of PTSD, if it's verified, that connection is now automatic, it's provided.

INSKEEP: If you served in combat, and if you're diagnosed with PTSD, you're not going to have to prove that it was because of your combat experience.

Gen. SHINSEKI: That's correct. In fact, originally you were required to provide the details of the stressor event - place, time, you know, circumstances. All of that is now no longer necessary.

INSKEEP: Has that increased the number of cases that you're dealing with?

Gen. SHINSEKI: It has, and so we're watching the rise. And this was not just a Iraq-Afghanistan issue, this is a generational issue. We have PTSD treatment going on with veterans that go back to World War II, Korea, Vietnam. So it's a large generational issue.

INSKEEP: General Shinseki, thanks very much.

Gen. SHINSEKI: You're quite welcome.

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