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NOW on the News
4.6.07

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Paul Rieckhoff on V.A. Crisis
4.6.07

» More about this interview

MARIA HINOJOSA: Hello everyone. This week we're talking to Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America. Rieckhoff himself served in Iraq for the US army national guard as a first Lieutenant and as an infantry platoon leader.

We're going to talk to Paul about what some war veterans are calling the second war that they face, when they return from fighting on the front lines. These soldiers say their battling their own superiors, military medical doctors and the veteran's administration.

But we're going to start by discussing the case of Jon Town. He was awarded the purple heart after being injured in Iraq, only to find himself cut off from collecting benefits and ended up actually owing the army money. Town says that he was told by a military doctor that he was no longer combat ready. And that he should take a chapter 5-13. which would release him from the military because of a personality disorder.

Town says he was also told he would receive his full benefits. But in the end he found out he would get nothing. And actually would end up owing the military $3,000 for the enlisting bonus he received.

Jon Town says he does not have a personality disorder. But he is suffering from hearing loss, memory failure and PTSD as a result of the enemy rocket attack he suffered. Now I want to ask just Paul Rieckhoff, what exactly is going on here? I mean how often is this happening that you have wounded vets who are coming back and they're basically being told if you want to get out quick, take this 5-13 and you're going to get all of your benefits. But then they find out that it's not true.

PAUL RIECKOFF: Surprisingly often. Across the entire armed forces, more than 22,500 soldiers have been dismissed due to personality disorders over the last six years. And just to put this in perspective for a second, what's happened with Jon Town is absolutely outrageous and shameful.

We—we have to remember, this is a guy who served in Iraq in combat. Put his life on the line. Was wounded in a rocket attack.

And now has to pay the army back for his signing bonus. it's absolutely absurd. We owe this kid forever. And the idea that he—he and his family now have not only this financial burden, but this psychological burden and this personal burden of having to advocate on their own behalf to prove he was really injured is—is outrageous.

And—and makes me very angry as a veteran. The—the 5-13 situation is one that all veterans are concerned about. And veterans advocates across the board are worried about how prolific these cases have been. And we think there need to be Congressional investigations.

Let's find out why there are so—so many and such an increase in the number of personality disorders. If this guy had a personality disorder, a pre existing condition, how did he get in the army to begin with?

How was he good enough to send to Iraq for a year? And send to Ramadi to serve in harms way? But then when he comes home we say, "Oh I'm sorry, your condition is pre existing?" That's ridiculous and—and shameful.

HINOJOSA: Yes but—but help me understand this. Because you know, I'm a reporter. I've been around the block. But this sense that essentially this young man, and many others, according to you, are being told by army doctors "Look, go for the 5-13. Don't worry. You're going to get all of your benefits."

This is where I kind of come up against a wall. Are you saying that these medical doctors are looking at this injured soldiers and lying to them? Point blank. And if so, what is the motivation for that?

RIECKOFF: They're either lying or they're negligent or their incompetent. I don't know what the actual motivation is. But I know we've got a problem here. And what we've seen is that the medical community, both the department of defense and at the veteran's affairs department are not prepared for the influx of wounded soldiers.

1.6 million people have been through Iraq and Afghanistan. This war has gone on longer than anyone anticipated. And as a result the pieces on the back end aren't in place. The doctors aren't trained. The screening capacity is not in place.

Every single soldier coming home should be screened, mandatorily for traumatic brain injury. That isn't happening. After the blockbuster piece at ABC news with—anchorman—Bob Woodruff—traumatic brain injury was exposed to the American public. And the next day secretary of veteran's affairs, Jim Nicolson said, "We're going to start doing screening for traumatic brain injury." After they had been shamed into revealing this problem.

However they are only going to screen the 200,000 veterans who've actually come for treatment to the VA. So there's 1.4 million people who are not yet at the VA or maybe will never go to the VA that may be having dizziness. Memory loss. Vision problems associated with a traumatic brain injury that are never going to be screened.

So when it comes to the motivation factor, these traumatic brain injuries, any type of severe injuries are incredibly costly. A completely disabled soldier is entitled to about $44,000 a year. So if you multiply that times the tens of thousands of people who've been discharged as a result of a chapter 5-13, we're looking at $4.5 billion or more.

So there's a huge cost crunch here. And this is incredibly costly. And it does save the military a ton of money to discharge somebody with—with a chapter 5-13 instead of keeping them in the VA roles probably for their lifetime.
HINOJOSA: Okay, so you—you're saying, "Look there's a financial crunch. The military did not plan to treat all these soldiers." But help me again to understand how it is that within the military—I—I mean is there somebody who's coming up with a policy that is saying, "Look—get 'em out on these personalities disorders. Because it means that we're not going to owe them anything. And they're not going to get any services."

I mean help our audience understand how that can happen in more than just Jon Town's case. But in, what you're saying, thousands of cases.

RIECKOFF: Well let's look at—at the unit commanders first of all. If you've got a company commander who's redeploying to Iraq with his unit for maybe the third, even the fourth time, he wants the people who are in the best physical and mental condition. And if he's got somebody like Jon Town that he thinks he can chapter out, he's going to do it. Or he may do it because he wants to replace him with a healthy body.

Our units continue to go back at an unprecedented pace. And our unit commanders are under tremendous stress to try to maintain a healthy force. And this is a quick way to get them out. Whether the cost—issue comes into it—into effect for that unit commander or not, I don't know.

But it's clear that the medical community, once they are referred from those unit commanders, are not prepared to screen for not only this type of injury that Jon Town experienced. But a multitude of new injuries like post traumatic stress disorder. Like traumatic brain injury. This is a new war.

And it's got new types of injuries. New types of disabilities. And the medical community has not been ramped up to assess those needs accurately. Right now we don't even have a registry for all veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. There is not a tracking mechanism in place to find out what kind of health issues are going to emerge over the course of the next few decades.

So we can't even begin to project accurately how many people are going to have traumatic brain injury or—or post traumatic stress disorder. Because right now we don't even know where they are or what they're doing.

If you asked the secretary of the V.A. right now how many Iraq veterans are dead, he couldn't tell you. Because once they come home, he doesn't track them unless they come to the doors of his buildings.

HINOJOSA: Paul Rieckhoff, you know, I actually spoke to Jon Town earlier today. And what fascinated me was how this soldier who fought for a year in Iraq and was wounded there discovered that he was losing his benefits. This is what Jon Town told me.

JON TOWN: I actually found out the day I was leaving the army and went to sign my final out paperwork there on Fort Carson. And leave with my family that same day. And—to our knowledge that we're—we're going to be leaving with—a compensation pay and that VA would kick in after—after we got out of the military.

The—the gentleman who did my paperwork was very nice about it. And he said, "Do not get mad at me. It's not me. This is just my job." And he says, "You owe the government $3,000."

HINOJOSA: You were honored 12 times during the seven years that you put in with the military. You received a purple heart for the wounds that you suffered when you were injured in Ramadi. What does it mean to you, you know, when you kind of see where you stand right now? No benefits. Entirely cut off. Owing the military money. Being told that you have a personality disorder when you believe you don't.

TOWN: I still stand—like I always have. I'm still an American. I still love this country more than anything. I mean if the army asked me to do something, even now, I would still do it. I will always be loyal to this country.

HINOJOSA: Paul Rieckhoff, do you believe that there's a kind of policy right now within the—the army and the military to push these 5-13s? To get them to—these soldiers to say "I'm taking a 5-13 which means I have a personality disorder. And I'm going to move in that direction." And the day that they're signing out, like Jon Town, is when they find out that then as a result they're going to have no benefits at all.

RIECKOFF: I don't know if—if it's a policy or not. But it's definitely a trend. And it's a disturbing trend. And I think that's part of the reason why we need Congressional investigations. Let's subpoena people. Let's look at the memos. Let's find out if there is an internal mandate that says push people out under chapter 5-13 cause it's going to save us money. Or for some other motivation.

I think that's why we need to really shine some sunlight on this situation and find out how deep it goes. Who knows. And—and how wide the scope is. Because no matter how you cut it, this is unacceptable.

HINOJOSA: I want you to answer me this question. What's the underlying message when you are told, "Sorry soldier x, y or z, you're no longer deployable."

RIECKOFF: You're done. You're done. We don't need you anymore. You're used up. That's what the message is—is for the soldiers. We've—we've used you up. We—we've—we've gotten our use out of you. And now we don't need you anymore.

HINOJOSA: But you're a veteran. You're an American war veteran. Doesn't that mean that—

RIECKOFF: This—

HINOJOSA: —we're going to help you?
RIECKOFF: Walter Reed and the fiasco there has revealed to the American people that we are as a nation not ready to deal with veterans coming home. And this has been a problem throughout the generations.

The Veteran's Affairs Department, which is chronically under funded and under resourced and is already crying out for help around the country. And I would argue that secretary Jim Nicolson, the head of the V.A. is kind of like the Mike Brown, the FEMA director, that America doesn't know about yet.

Because he's got problems within his administration. His people are overextended. The resources aren't there. Yet he's telling the president and everyone else publicly that things are fine. Things are not fine at the VA. And Jonathon Town's—situation is just one piece of that puzzle.

HINOJOSA: So Paul when you see this report that was released in a earlier last fall—it's—was a report produced by the government accountability office that basically said that the department of veteran affairs used pre-war data in order to estimate what it would cost to care for veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

And essentially that left a $3 billion budget shortfall. Because they were calculating servicing veterans. But this was before there really was a war and veterans to treat. So what do you think about that?

RIECKOFF: Right, they—they were playing Enron games with the numbers. And the secretary of the VA didn't know how many people were using his services. That shows you how out of touch and incompetent the secretary of the VA is.

When he comes before Congress and testifies this is the number of people we've seen, it was somewhere in—in the 20,000 range. And has to come back a few weeks later and says, "Woops, I screwed up the numbers. I was wrong. it's actually 75,000. Three times the initial estimate I gave you."

That shows you there's a failure of leadership. He doesn't understand what's happening in his own organization. And he can't even effectively advocate for—advocate for an adequate budget.

This is why we had a budget shortfall. And the—and the Congress had to push through a—a multi billion dollar emergency supplemental so VA hospitals could keep their lights on because the secretary got the numbers wrong.

This is an absolutely unacceptable—pattern on the part of the VA. They have continuously and—and consistently underestimated the threats that face our nation when veterans come home.

HINOJOSA: So when you say that the army tells a non deployable soldier, "We're done with you. We're through with you." People might think, okay, well there are a lot of desk jobs that can be done within the military. Why not put them in a desk job?

RIECKOFF: That—that's a great question. And I would ask the same thing. I think what—what really disturbs me is that when you push somebody out through a chapter 5-13 there is no one who is responsible for your care. It—it's the way that the army washes their hands of you. And the VA washes their hands of you.

If you have a 5-13 chapter, you are not entitled to any VA services at all. And—and that is extremely dangerous. Because somebody like Jon Town is now caught in this administrative limbo trying to figure out how to get himself care. Try to figure out how to put food on the table for his family.

And this is the ultimate sign of disrespect on the part of an ungrateful nation. This guy is a war hero. And he has to beg, plead, scrap and claw to get results. And ultimately the only way he's going to get results in—in all reality is because he's gone to the press and he's shamed the people in power into—into some sort of action.

HINOJOSA: So on the one hand Paul, you're angry because soldiers who are coming back with PTSD are not being taken care of. On the other hand when you were serving and you were a platoon leader—you actually had soldiers who had PTSD, who had been redeployed, who were on medication for PTSD and who were supposed to be going out on missions with you?

RIECKOFF: I had a soldier whose wife left him. He had been having some serious psychological problems. Showed obvious signs of PTSD.

I lobbied and pushed to—through our chain of command to my battalion commander to our battalion chaplain, to our battalion surgeon to get this guy some care. And—and the answer I got back consistently was, "Well he's going to have to suck it up."

Now he was not only a liability to himself. He was a liability to my platoon. He was a liability to every other guy that went out on patrol with him. Ultimately I had him pushed back to headquarters where he could do an administrative job. But he was still in harms way. He was still worried about begin mortared. He was still worried about begin shot by a sniper. And he was still under tremendous stress.

So he continued to devolve. And ultimately pulled out his nine millimeter and shot himself in the leg. That's how he got home. He went home. He dealt with his divorce. He dealt with his mental health issues.

But the army redeployed him. He came back to our unit a few months later. After shooting himself in the leg. The army brought him back to serve out the rest of our term in Iraq.

HINOJOSA: My—my jaw is dropping because I'm imagining that's the same reaction that many people are having when they're hearing this. They redeploy a soldier like that?

RIECKOFF: They sent him back to our company in the same area of Baghdad after he shot himself in the leg. If that person doesn't—show signs of—of emotional stress and—and—and dangerous behavior, I don't know who does.

HINOJOSA: Do you have soldiers—do you know of soldiers who are right now—serving an active duty in Iraq who are on medication that could make them have problems when they're on missions?

RIECKOFF: Absolutely. The G.A.O. did a recent study and found that of the soldiers who prior to deployment had flagged themselves or were flagged by a mental health expert for post traumatic stress disorder of signs of a mental health issue.

Only 20 percent got follow up care in treatment. So that means 80 percent of them, at least, were redeployed to the combat theatre with signs of a mental health issue. And again it's not only a liability to them personally. But to the entire unit. And also to the Iraqi civilians.

HINOJOSA: You have also said that wounded soldiers who have come back to the states who are in the process of being treated and—and essentially recuperating, soldiers who—have been told by their doctors that they cannot wear body armor, you're saying that you know of soldiers in these conditions that are being sent back. Redeployed right now?

RIECKOFF: Absolutely. There was a—a recent investigative report done by—Mark Benjamin at Salon.com where he profiled a number of soldiers who had experienced injuries of various types. One guy for example was a master sergeant with a severe back injury.

He was told that he was physically unable to carry anything on his back. He was redeployed to Iraq with the third infantry division to carry pounds of body armor in a rucksack. This has happened. And it's in part because there is not an adequate screening process in place.

And more so because our military is under tremendous strain. We don't have enough people. The demand for our troops continues to go up. And the supply does not. So over time everybody across the board is under pressure to keep people in. To keep troop numbers up. And to maintain our force. And we're compromising the overall integrity of our military. And we're driving some of the individuals into the ground.

HINOJOSA: When people are listening to this Paul, I'm sure that they're throwing up their arms and saying, "My god, we experienced something like this right after Vietnam. So many homeless veterans. You know, what can we do?"

RIECKOFF: Well it—it starts with making veteran's issues a priority. And right now the president hasn't done that. The new Congress is—has made some legislative progress. But the president never talks about veteran's issues. He never talks about traumatic brain injury. He never talks about post traumatic stress disorder.

And by not making veteran's issues a priority, the American public's not paying attention. They don't think it's a big deal. And that's why something like Walter Reed becomes such a shock to people.

They say, "My god, we—how—how did this happen? We had no idea." I do fault the leadership here. They're not making veteran's issues a priority. They haven't made funding the V.A. a priority. And when these presidential candidates run around the country over the course of the next few years, every American needs to be asking them specifically, "What are you going to do for the veterans coming home?"

One in three are going to have post traumatic stress disorder. 25,000 at least, have been wounded already. And we should be asking every single candidate at the presidential level, but also at the local level, "What are you going to do to deal with it? How are you going to handle that?"

HINOJOSA: So I've heard that there's a saying among soldiers that if you don't have PTSD before you enter the V.A., you will definitely have it when you leave.

RIECKOFF: Right. Yeah. People are frustrated. The system is already flawed because it's up to the veteran to self diagnose. And then to go to the VA. And then navigate this maze of bureaucracy and read tape.

Right now there are 400,000 claims backlogged at the VA. Many of them have been backlogged for six months or more. So if you've got—they want you to go to the VA and stand on line. They want you to go to the V.A. and become a—a shepherd for your paperwork. They want you to spend hours on the phone.

It's just too hard. And it shouldn't be that complicated. It shouldn't be that complex. Especially after you've honorably served your country in harm's way.

HINOJOSA: When you say that, you know, about one percent of—of the American population will serve, that means that probably a lot of people who are listening are not personally affected. So bring this all home from—for us.

I mean what does this mean to those of us who are not tied, you know, in terms of our family or friends, to the military. The fact that all of this is happening. What does it mean to us now? And what do you worry about in terms of what—what's going to happen to—to our country in the future?

RIECKOFF: Well first of all it means that all of us are at greater risk. Because our military is weakened. We depend on our military to defend our shores. And—and not only for things like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But to respond to domestic issues like 9/11 or hurricane Katrina. And—and the military is being—being diminished at such a great rate that we are compromising our ability to respond to domestic threats. That makes every American less safe.

Now there's an another overflow factor. These folks coming home, specifically with mental health issues, if they go untreated are going to see a typical and predictable pattern of devolution.

After Vietnam, folks came home and didn't get the treatment they needed. And it resulted in the same slippery slope we're seeing now. If you have a mental health issue and it goes untreated, it devolves to marital problems, employment issues, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and incarceration, homelessness and suicide.

So those are issues that are going to overflow into our local communities. Not only on a personal level. But on a financial level. We're going to end up paying for this. And it's going to be very expensive.

So I would argue let's pay now. Let's get adequate screening in place. Let's get enough mental health counselors in place. Let's beef up the VA program and take care of them on the front end when they first came home so we don't end up paying for them from decades and impacting their lives and their families and their children for decades to come.

HINOJOSA: And—and finally Paul, you know, people can't see you. But you are—you're definitely a big guy.

RIECKOFF: Yeah.

HINOJOSA: You know—I would, if I had to serve, I'd probably want to serve under your leadership. But what does it do to you, a soldier, when you see this happening to our—our military? What does it do to your soul?

RIECKOFF: It breaks my heart. And it—and it shames me. Because I know that this is a country that I love. And that I'm proud of. And I'm honored to have served in the military.

But when we come home, that level of honor and respect is not the same. And it should be. I think the Walter Reed situation has created a national tipping point for veteran's issues.

The increased intensity from the—from the media has resulted in a new level of awareness. And at least for a few days, Americans were talking about veteran's issues and Walter Reed instead of Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears. And I think now we've got tremendous momentum and interest and energy to get behind a change in the way this country there's its veterans.

HINOJOSA: Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America. Thanks so much for joining us on Now on the News.

RIECKOFF: My pleasure, thank you.

HINOJOSA: If you'd like to read the Joshua Kors article in the nation, then go to our website at www.pbs.org/now. They're you'll find an interview with Joshua Kors on what he uncovered investigating Jon Town's dismissal from the military and other information that he brought in The Nation article. Go to www.pbs.org/now. And we'll talk to you again soon.

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