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Meeting the Health Needs of 21st Century Veterans

After a decade of conflict in Iraq, our troops have come home, producing the largest increase in the number of American veterans since the 1970s. After Vietnam, an America tired of war and consumed with political angst neglected its veterans. Fortunately, the veterans of today are receiving the homecoming they deserve. To make that homecoming complete, America needs to ensure that our returning warriors have access to one of the most important benefits they have earned: health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A Health Care Challenge: Fewer Battlefield Deaths, More Injuries

The United States military is the most technologically sophisticated fighting force in the world. This technological advantage means that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are subject to fewer casualties than in Vietnam. But those who do receive injuries are significantly more likely to survive because of body armor and the high quality of medical care. According to a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, only 13 percent of those injured in Iraq were likely to die compared to those injured in Vietnam, where the fatality rate was nearly 25 percent. But our ability to save lives also means that many more veterans are returning home after losing limbs or suffering from the after-effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from blasts experienced in battle or as a result of improvised explosive devices.

A frightening aspect of TBI is that it can be quite difficult to diagnose. It is possible for someone exposed to an explosion to show no signs of injury until weeks or months later when symptoms—such as depression, anxiety or anger issues—become apparent. Untreated, these symptoms can lead to major depression, substance use problems, unemployment and ruined family relationships. In addition to TBI, other problems—from back injuries to exposure to toxins—may only become apparent after the veteran has been separated from service for months or even years.

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