Study: Vets Are a Massive ‘Unfunded Liability’

Experts say the projected cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone up another trillion dollars, but the general sound we hear from Congress isn’t outrage. More likely it’s the sound of crickets.

Crickets most definitely from the empty chairs at the House Veterans Affairs Committee, a clear majority of which didn’t bother to show up Thursday for a full panel meeting on Capitol Hill regarding the “True Cost of War.” Granted, Congress had just adjourned until mid-November that morning, and most members had one foot out the door before 10 a.m., itching hard to hit the campaign trail in their home districts. They do have priorities, you know.

You could practically count the number of members who bothered to show up on one hand, and they were all Democrats. Three congressmen not on the committee sat in, including Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), one of the few GOP war critics in Congress, who sat noticeably in front of 25 empty committee seats. But within an hour or so, all were gone but Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.), looking lonely across from the sizable (but definitely not standing room only) audience of mostly veterans’ advocates all too used to the feeling of talking to a wall.

The media presence also appeared close to nil – save for me and another guy at the end of a very long, empty table, and perhaps one blogger somewhere in the crowd.

The hearing certainly didn’t generate the atmospheric drama as say, a Hill visit by Stephen Colbert, but testimony by the morning’s key witnesses was dramatic, if not foreboding, and much more critical than much of the hoo-hah that passes for “the people’s business” in Congress these days.

According to researchers Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War, their 2008 estimates for the long-term cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were too conservative; in fact, they were way off. They pointed specifically to the cost of veterans’ care, which they revised up from $717 billion to $934 billion – nearly $1 trillion in health and disability costs alone!

Why? Stiglitz and Bilmes estimated two years ago that 30 to 33 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans (fewer than 400,000) would have sought care in the Veterans Administration (VA) health system by 2010. But as of March, more than 565,000 such veterans have already been treated by the VA. They hadn’t expected to reach that number until 2016.

And that figure is likely much higher today. According to Paul Sullivan, director of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), new patients average some 9,000 a month. Taking that into account, there could be closer to 620,000 new vets in the system today.

As a result, estimates for long-term medical care were revised up from $284 billion to $348 billion.

Meanwhile, Stiglitz and Bilmes estimated two years ago that between 366,000 and 398,000 returning vets would have filed disability compensation (cash) claims by 2010, when in fact, more than 518,000 have already filed such claims. So, the researchers revised their estimates for long-term disability costs from $388 billion to $534 billion.

Furthermore, estimates for disability payments through Social Security went from $43 billion to $52 billion.

This is just a snapshot of course. These figures, Stiglitz and Bilmes point out, do not include costs to Medicare or military TRICARE for Life or active duty health care spending, which has gone up a staggering 167 percent since 2001. They don’t include vet-related costs to state and local governments, the GI Bill, home loan guarantees, job training services, and expanding VA facilities and programs due to increased demands.

Bottom line, 2008 estimates for the costliest of veterans’ care – medical, disability and Social Security payments – had to be revised up 25 percent based on current trends, said Stiglitz, a 2000 Nobel Memorial Prize winner. “The new book should be called the ‘Four to Six Trillion Dollar War and Increasing,’” he told the committee. “We will be getting a full assemblage of numbers in January. What is clear … the total cost is substantially higher.”

Such news should have the effect of a bugle blast on the Congress. Or at least induce queasiness, suggested Winslow Wheeler, budget analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

“When Bilmes and Stiglitz originally estimated the cost of the $3 trillion dollar war, everybody gagged, especially the advocates who said the war would be near ‘self-financing,’” he told “Now, they need to gag a little harder. We should too.”

One would think that for all of the marching, praying and campaigning against unwieldy federal spending and the debt, there might be a much broader discussion over whether our increasingly unpopular wars are worth the cost.

Ignorance is prevailing instead, said Filner. “It’s like looking at the homeless, no one wants to look at it. I don’t think Americans want to know the true cost of war.”

Members of Congress certainly have a hard time with it. Filner noted that Congress is just getting down to compensating World War II vets caught up in atomic testing [.pdf] and Vietnam veterans suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. “This is a disgrace … an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as a Congress,” he said, noting “the system we have makes it much easier to send our troops into harm’s way … than to care for them when they get home.”

In their original report, Stiglitz, an economist at Columbia University, and Bilmes, who teaches public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, assessed the long-term costs of the war based on operations continuing through 2017. They did this in an attempt to show the American public that aside from the Goliath budget for the Department of Defense – $680 billion for fiscal year 2010 alone – and the terribly expensive operational costs of the war – more than $1 trillion since 2001 – there are a range of long-term hidden and often overlooked costs like veterans’ care, and the economic and social costs of the war.

“Long-term veterans’ costs as they are now are beginning to approach the cost of what we spend in actual combat operations,” said Bilmes. “We know at least at the minimum, the veterans’ costs will be higher than what we expected.”

Over the last nine years, more than 2.1 million Americans have served more than three million tours of duty and 1.25 million veterans have returned home. Long-term costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts can be expected to be higher than previous conflicts because of 1) higher survival rates for injured soldiers, 2) higher instances of Post Traumatic Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health ailments, 3) more vets applying for benefits and 4) more generous benefits over all, Stiglitz and Bilmes told the committee.

Here’s is some language that the Tea Partiers – none of which, by the way, were pressing into the Veterans’ Affairs Committee room Thursday – might understand. According to the Stiglitz-Bilmes team, “the U.S. debt rose from $6.5 trillion to $10 trillion between 2003 and 2008, before the financial crisis. At least one-fourth of that debt is directly attributable to the wars,” and that doesn’t include the “unfunded liabilities” wrapped up in caring for veterans.

That would include someone like Robert Warren, 20, who is recovering from a bomb blast he survived in Afghanistan in May, shortly after he arrived in-country. According to a Washington Post feature on Sunday, Warren has a piece of shrapnel in his carotid artery and a large portion of his skull removed by doctors so that he might survive. He has severe brain injuries that affect his long-term memory and other cognitive skills. He has years of rehabilitation ahead of him; he just became a father.

Warren joins the rest of the 20 percent of service members who are estimated to have incurred some level of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on the battlefield and survived. The “signature wound” of the current war, science is still trying to catch up with the how to best diagnose TBI, how to heal it, and how to integrate soldiers back into their lives while they are forced to live with it. And it is expensive, according to lawmakers present at Thursday’s hearing – Congress has already approved $1.2 billion in TBI-related funding. Next month, according to the Post, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda will open a $65 million TBI unit, which will only be able to care for 20 severely damaged individuals at a time.

And the injuries keep coming. According to Sullivan at VCS, a total of 92,384 servicemembers have been wounded or were medically evacuated due to injury or illness since the war began. And it will certainly increase, with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and 50,000 still in Iraq today.

“The scale of our financial commitment to providing for veterans is huge,” said Stiglitz and Bilmes. “But at present, the U.S. has no provision for how it will pay for this long-term liability.”

Several Democrats have thought this through before. They think that if the country is going to send its men and women off to a bloody war, it should at least be able to pay for it. The “Share the Sacrifice Act,” which would incorporate a temporary tax to offset the costs of the war, has seen different incarnations, but has so far failed to get off the ground, mainly because Republicans see it as a Democratic ploy to end the war and most Democrats are too scared to push it.

So now Filner says he will be proposing a “Veterans Trust Fund,” to be paid for with a “surcharge,” dedicated to ensuring these astronomical costs will be paid, despite hard times and changing political winds. One veterans’ advocate sitting in the audience Thursday pointed out that while Congress has indeed been attentive to their needs – VA appropriations have increased from $90 billion to $125 billion in the last four years – there is no guarantee that a shift in party control this November won’t give way to “extremists that want to cut back and then privatize VA under the smokescreen of cutting the debt.”

Here’s an idea – how about ending the wars? Several (failed) attempts were made in July by members to start withdrawing troops now (instead of 2011 – what’s the difference?). Most “experts” are increasingly framing operations in Afghanistan as hopeless, and with Muqtada al Sadr on the ascent in Iraq, we’re likely not too long for that place either. Why not save a few skulls (and a lot more money) in the meantime? Then we can concentrate on the billions in lifetime costs we’re already obligated to pay.

If a kid repeatedly broke his bones climbing trees, his father wouldn’t take on a part-time job just to pay for the medical bills, he would tell the kid to stop climbing the damn trees and come home.

We need to get our men and women out of the trees and back home, and then we can start the healing.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.