Friday, August 13, 2004

No surprise - DoD hearings affirm combatant status for 4
The New York Times (and others) report that the "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" being held at Guantanamo have come to a decision in four initial cases. As expected, the tribunals found sufficient evidence to support the military's designation of these individuals as enemy combatants. As such, they are subject to continued detention at Guantanamo Bay. According to Navy Secretary Gordon England, appointed by Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld to oversee the process, every detainee at Gitmo will be considered by these panels before the year's end.

These panels are separate from the military commissions planned for 15 of the detainees, and also separate from the habeas corpus proceedings in federal district court made available by the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush. It's not clear when either of those sets of proceedings will start, though the wheels are turning for both right now so I'd expect some action there by Labor Day.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Army intel staff report finds widespread blame for Abu Ghraib
Tom Bowman reports in the Baltimore Sun on another report by the Army on the Abu Ghraib. This one was initiated by the Army's intelligence branch, and headed up by Lt. Gen. Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Jones, deputy commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command responsible for training intel soldiers and devising intel doctrine for the Army. Presumably, this inquiry was aimed at systemic problems in the Army's intel system that might have caused (or allowed) these abuses -- and it found some.
The Army report, expected to be released by the end of the month, contends that responsibility for the abuses goes beyond the seven soldiers from a Maryland-based military police unit who up to now are the only ones to face charges in the scandal, said the officials, who requested anonymity.

The Pentagon officials said the report alleges even more troubling incidents than have been portrayed to date in the testimony of prisoners and soldiers as well as widely circulated pictures of naked Iraqi detainees stacked in pyramids, held on a leash or faced with snarling guard dogs. The officials provided no details.

The report recommends action against the military intelligence soldiers that ranges from administrative punishment carrying penalties such as loss of pay and reduction in rank to the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding that could lead to court-martial, the officials said.

Most if not all of the soldiers implicated in the report, officials said, are from the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which is based in Germany and was assigned to Abu Ghraib during the period when the abuses occurred, October through December last year.

The brigade's commander, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, has received a letter of reprimand for failing to ensure that his soldiers were properly trained and that they adhered to the protections afforded detainees under the Geneva Conventions.

No officers senior to Pappas will be recommended for disciplinary action in the report, officials said.

* * *
The military intelligence report was ordered on the heels of another investigation by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, the deputy commander of coalition ground forces, who focused on the role of military police at the prison, especially soldiers of the 372nd, an Army Reserve unit from Cresaptown, near Cumberland.
Analysis: This report goes far beyond the Army IG report authored by Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, which many criticized as a whitewash because it blamed a few bad apples at the lowest levels of command for the abuses. Lt. Gen. Jones' report takes a step back to look at external factors which might have set the conditions for the abuse at Abu Ghraib. I think this is the kind of report we've needed to do all along, in addition to the grass roots criminal investigations at Abu Ghraib. It's a little disappointing to me that it's taken so long.

But of course, there is a problem here. There is a clear division of labor among these reports, with each focusing like a laser on one specific avenue of inquiry -- to the exclusion of all others. This approach enables Pentagon officials to see some things very clearly. But it also allows gaps to emerge. So far, we have not seen a report which looks at the influence of OSD policy or OSD legal guidance on these abuses. Nor have we seen a report that looks at the role of CIA, special operations and other covert elements at Abu Ghraib. (We may never see such a report.) The only holistic look we have so far is the Taguba report, and it excludes a lot of stuff too.

In my opinion, the only way that we can atone for our collective sins at Abu Ghraib is to account for them fully, honestly, and openly. I understand that interrogation is a dark art, and that we have "sources and methods" that we want to guard. But the larger political and strategic imperatives may be more important here than a few TTPs developed by the Army intel community for interrogation. We need to restore America's image in the world, and our commitment to the rule of law in the eyes of our allies. We also need to do everything we can to salvage and bolster the legitimacy of our mission in Iraq, and the legitimacy of the nascent Iraqi government. Accounting for Abu Ghraib is a necessary first step, and we should encourage more reports like this one.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Pentagon surveys interrogators' tactics
Jess Bravin reports in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) on a very interesting survey being conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense on interrogation tactics in the field. The questionnaire (available on the WSJ website) starts off with an Art. 31/5th Amendment rights warning, which I found to be a little silly because the mere act of answering this questionnaire could incriminate some soldiers. Then it asks a variety of questions, such as:
2. Did you serve as an interrogator or debriefer in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay? If so, please give the inclusive dates and the unit with which you served (for Special Mission Units, identify only the geographic area and approximate dates).

3. Which technique did you use most often during interrogations?

4. Which techniques do you feel were the most effective?

5. Did you use or observe the use of "stress positions" or "safety positions" as an interrogation technique? If so, please indicate the location and dates of use.

6. Did you use or observe the use of Military Working Dogs during an interrogation? If so, please indicate the location and dates of use and describe how the military working dogs were employed. For example, where were the dogs in relation to the interrogation subject, and were
the dogs muzzled or unmuzzled?

7. Did you use or observe the use of the following interrogation techniques? If so, please indicate the location and dates of use. If the technique was used frequently, give only inclusive dates.
Incentive/Removal of Incentive
Emotional Love
Emotional Hate
Fear Up Harsh
Fear Up Mild
Fear Down
Pride and Ego Up
Pride and Ego Down
We Know All
Establish Your Identity
File and Dossier
Mutt And Jeff ...
Mr. Bravin previously reported on these and other techniques in April 2002, in an excellent article on the Army's interrogation school at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He wrote then:
Interrogators -- the Pentagon renamed them "human intelligence collectors" last year -- are authorized not just to lie, but to prey on a prisoner's ethnic stereotypes, sexual urges and religious prejudices, his fear for his family's safety, or his resentment of his fellows. They'll do just about everything short of torture, which officials say is not taught here, to make their prisoners spill information that could save American lives.

* * *
Instruction begins by making students aware of the intelligence-gathering skills they already have. Sgt. First Class Anthony Novacek likes to use a romantic example: "You're down at Jimbo's Beach Shack, approaching unknown females," he tells recruits. Success involves assessing the target, speaking her language, learning her needs and appearing to be the only way she can satisfy them.

Soldiers then study 30 techniques to make prisoners crack. One is the simple "incentive approach." Around the world, "everyone smokes," Sgt. Giersdorf tells students. "If you've ever talked to a captured Arab who hasn't smoked for two hours, a pack of smokes can get you a long way."

Some incentives, however, can be pure deceptions. Sgt. Giersdorf says prisoners may be told they could be repatriated if they cooperate, or that their wounded friends might get the best medical care, even though interrogators know that neither would happen. Other techniques involve considerably more pressure.

"Fear-up" employs "heavy-handed, table-banging violence," an Army field manual says. "The interrogator behaves in a heavy, overpowering manner with a loud and threatening voice" and may "throw objects across the room to heighten the source's implanted feelings of fear."
In today's article, Mr. Bravin writes that the Pentagon is trying to quickly get a handle on how its interrogators are practicing their dark art in the field -- and what specific tactics they might be using to produce human intelligence. The impetus for this survey is obvious. Everyone wants to know about American detention and interrogation practices right now, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal and other revelations about American "coercive interrogation" practices. Apparently, the Pentagon doesn't know how widespread these practices are, and it wants to find out:
The focus of the inquiry, however, will likely be methods the Bush administration labeled "exceptional" -- such as "isolation," "forced grooming" and "prolonged interrogations" of as many as 20 hours -- in an April 2003 interrogation policy issued by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Those techniques were intended for prisoners thought to possess "critical intelligence," but it is unclear how widespread their use became.

"They want to make sure that techniques didn't migrate from one area where they were authorized to a place where they weren't," said Mark Jacobson, a former Pentagon official and now a visiting scholar at the Mershon Center, a national-security think tank at Ohio State University. "What I'm wondering is why this information was not already there."
Analysis: Yeah... I'm curious about that too. Intelligence collection is a very sensitive area, especially when you're talking about the interrogation of high-value assets and detainees such as some of those we currently hold in the war on terrorism. You would think that the Pentagon would know exactly where they were, how they were being interrogated, and what results those sessions were producing. In Army parlance, these things should be considered "Commander's Critical Information Requirements" -- "CCIRs" for short. Every so often, I'd expect someone from OSD to get a briefing on the progress of these interrogations, and to know the details of them in order to answer questions from the President, Congress, the ICRC, the press, and other interested parties. It's just too important to not be in the weeds on this issue.

What we have here is a big game of "catch up". Obviously, the Pentagon was caught off-guard by the firestorm this summer over Abu Ghraib and detention/interrogation practices elsewhere. I think they want to mount an effective response, but feel they can't without adequate information. I also think there's a desire to establish and implement effective policy guidance on this matter which keeps the U.S. within the bounds of international and domestic law. To do that, the Pentagon's policy shop and legal shop must first gather information about what's being done in the field. We'll see where this inquiry leads.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

New book recommendations
I've added a couple of new book links to my recommendations on the left side of the page. If you have the time, check 'em out.
The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al Qaeda, by Chris Mackey and Greg Miller. This book is the product of a collaboration between LA Times reporter Greg Miller and "Chris Mackey", the pseudonym for an Army soldier assigned to conduct interrogations in Afghanistan during the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom. I listened to an NPR segment this morning discussing the book, and it sounds like an outstanding look into the world of "human intelligence" — what Mark Bowden calls "the dark art of interrogation". (For more background, also see this article from Knight-Ridder's DC bureau on the book.)

Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, by Peter W. Singer. Although this book has been out for some time, it has become more relevant than ever because of the extent to which private military contractors have been put to work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Singer, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, provides a superb look inside this industry in this book. A friend forwarded me a link to a New York Review of Books essay on this book, which is sure to generate some interest in the subject. But aside from that, I recommend this one for sheer intellectual value, because it's one of the best researched and best written books on the subject.
The "Bohica Blues"
Jason Chudy has a great slice-of-life report from Iraq on reserve Staff Sgt. Chris Grant, an artist who has created the cartoon strip "Bohica Blues" to caricature the life of a soldier in Iraq. The strip has an irreverent tone, starting with the title — "Bohica" is really an acronym for "bend over, here it comes again", an allegory to the seemingly endless stream of dumb orders that always seem to come down from a higher level of command. Whether you're a grunt complaining about the company commander, or a Corps staffer complaining about CENTCOM, there never seems to be a shortage of things to gripe about. "Bohica" certainly ranks up there with the great irreverent military acronyms of all time -- SNAFU, TARFU and FUBAR.

So far, SSG Grant's unit has been relatively supportive of the endeavor, recognizing the value in such artistic endeavors and humorous outlets for soldiers: "What he's able to do is capture, like Bill Mauldin's cartoons of World War II, the perspective of the soldier," said Maj. Adam Roth, the battalion executive officer. "He takes what we hear and turns it into something you can see. It's a great way to laugh at yourself." Right on — keep on drawing.
Gen. Franks takes responsibility for May 1 'Mission accomplished' statement
The Washington Post reports a small blurb this morning about some interesting comments by retired Gen. Tommy Franks regarding President Bush's now infamous declaration on May 1 that "major combat operations" had ended. Franks takes responsibility for that statement, saying he advised the president to say it. It's not clear that Franks pushed Bush to do so in such a flashy way, but at the least the substance of the remarks belong to the former CENTCOM commander:
"I wanted to get the phase of military operation over as quickly as I could, because a lot of countries on this planet had said as soon as that major stuff is over, we'll come in and help with all of the peacekeeping," Franks said.

He noted that the Bush administration has had limited success persuading other nations to participate in Iraq. Of about 160,000 foreign forces there now, about 140,000 are American.
Hmmm... interesting. This actually tracks (not surprisingly) with what Franks wrote in his book about the war plan for Iraq. It was divided into four phases, with Phase IV designated for post-war stability and support operations. It makes sense to me, as a former operational planner who specialized in those kinds of missions, that you would need to start that phase in order to trigger certain events such as the inflow of humanitarian agencies. On the other hand, this represents a startling amount of planning rigidity, and it's not clear why Franks needed a presidential declaration that Phase IV had begun in order to get the ball rolling here. The writing was clearly on the wall when the statues of Saddam fell, and when the regime collapsed in early April 2003. Franks should've immediately jumpstarted Phase IV operations, and on his own initiative, declared an end to Phase III for military purposes. There may have been some utility in a presidential declaration for diplomatic purposes, i.e. to get other countries involved who said they would only help with Phase IV, not Phase III's major combat ops.
War takes its toll on paratroopers
The Fayetteville Observer, hometown newspaper to Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne Division, reports today on a mental health survey done on the division's 2nd Brigade after its redeployment from a 1-year tour in Iraq. The results?
Based on a survey of 1,300 paratroopers, 17.4 percent of soldiers from the 82nd's 2nd Brigade have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

The 3,000-man brigade is centered around the 325th Airborne Infantry Brigade. The brigade was part of the invasion force and spent most of its time in Baghdad.

The numbers for the paratroopers are similar to those in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study found that 16 percent of Iraq veterans reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or severe anxiety.

"The numbers are looking more and more like Vietnam," said Capt. Jill Breitbach, chief of psychology services for the 82nd.
Analysis: Vietnam analogies aside, that's about what you'd expect to see in combat stress statistics given all the factors present. This was a one-year deployment -- and many soldiers were in contact for longer than the 60 day optimum combat period recommended in some of the literature. (After 60 days, mental health and performance plummets precipitously.) These soldiers also fought in a very complex and ambiguous environment, in which an adolescent could be the enemy and a roadside bomb could be hidden anywhere. Thus, their nerves would have been more frayed than had they simply seen Desert Storm-style conventional warfare. Finally, many of these units took heavy casualties (by U.S. standards) as they fought up to Baghdad and secured the country afterwards. That will affect the mind too.

For more on combat stress issues, also see this article by Dan Baum in the July 12 issue of the New Yorker.

Monday, August 9, 2004

412 pages in...
... to retired Gen. Tommy Franks' autobiographical history, American Soldier. It's still a very good read — obviously the product of good co-writing by Malcolm McConnell and good editing. I've heard Gen. Franks talk and I know some of his staffers, and his voice (as profane as it is) certainly comes through. Also, the book doesn't dwell on arcane details of military strategy or other areas where Franks' book could easily go off on a tangent. So I think it's definitely worth purchasing or reading if you have the time to slog through a 564-page book.

There are some very interesting passages in the book about the Bush administration's national security team, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and commentary on issues which arose during those wars. Here are a couple of the juicier sections:
Pg. 196-198. Outgoing CENTCOM "CinC" Tony Zinni offers some advice to incoming CENTCOM "CinC" Tommy Franks. Among other things, Zinni says "you'll drink a lot of tea in this job — and vodka up in the 'Stans". As Washington Post reporter Dana Priest has written, the CENTCOM commander acts as a modern-day proconsul for a volatile region stretching from Kenya to Kazakhstan. Some of the most interesting passages concern Franks' top-level diplomacy in places like Qatar and Uzbekistan, where he literally acts as an ambassador-at-arms.

Zinni also sounds an ominous -- maybe even prescient -- warning about Iraq.

Pg. 211, 226. There's no love lost between Tommy Franks and former-White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. "I suspected that Dick was better at identifying a problem than at finding a workable solution," writes Franks, adding several pages later that "I never received a single operational recommendation, or a single page of actionable intelligence, from Richard Clarke." Franks displays obvious disdain for a number of other civilian policy officials in the White House and Pentagon, most notably Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, who he describes on page 362 as "getting a reputation around here as the dumbest f---ing guy on the planet." I think that Franks would probably lump Feith and Clarke together as peas in a pod, notwithstanding their political differences.

Pg. 276-77, 294-95. Gen. Franks describes the friction he encountered with the chiefs of the four uniformed services, whom he describes as "a mob of Title Ten motherf---ers". The reference is to Title 10, United States Code, the body of law which governs the armed forces. It's a derogatory euphemism used by those in the "joint" community (i.e. warfighting commands like CENTCOM) to describe the services (i.e. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines), and their parochial tendencies. Brief background: the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 divided operational command from the responsibility for training, equipping and procuring the U.S. military. Combatant commanders like Franks fight the wars; the services do the training, equipping and procuring. Suffice to say, there has been a great deal of tension between these two camps. Franks seems exasperated with the service chiefs on several occasions, most notably when they ambush him over the warplan for Afghanistan. These passages have very interesting implications for anyone interested in joint warfare.
So far, Franks' book does not cover the same conceptual or theoretical ground as Wes Clark's Waging Modern War, but I'm not done yet. It's also very personal — it reads more like a memoir than a history book (like Clark's book). More to follow — only 152 pages to go...
Gitmo defense attorneys do battle with inadequate resources
Jess Bravin reports in this morning's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that the JAG attorneys detailed to defend detainees at Guantanamo before pending military tribunals are suffering from a lack of resources in several key areas. Among other things, they are being forced to mount a defense with just a few weeks of prep time since their assignment, and without sufficient staff support or translator support. Here's an excerpt from the article:
... Army Maj. Mark Bridges and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel, say they lost their first Arabic interpreter months ago and haven't received a replacement.

"Without being able to communicate with our client, how can we possibly represent his issues?" says Maj. Bridges.

That problem, one of several affecting four Guantanamo defendants facing potential life sentences for war crimes, hasn't deterred the Bush administration from pressing forward with the proceedings, defense attorneys say. Col. Peter Brownback III, a retired Army judge, was named in June to head the first U.S. military commission to try foreign prisoners for war crimes since the end of World War II. Col. Brownback has set initial hearings at the Guantanamo naval base for the week of Aug. 23, imposing a breakneck timetable on a process that has been stymied by legal and policy debates inside government and a diplomatic dispute with Britain over the possible prosecution of British nationals held at Guantanamo.

If Col. Brownback grants prosecution requests, the trial of David Hicks, an Australian captured in Afghanistan alongside the American Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh, could begin as soon as October, attorneys say. By January, three more trials could be under way, including those of Mr. Bahlul; Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who has admitted working as Osama bin Laden's driver; and Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, an alleged al Qaeda accountant.

"We're talking unquestionably the most complex litigation that I've been involved in -- constitutional law, international law, administrative law, humanitarian law -- and yet the presiding officer wants motions in two weeks and trials shortly after that," says Cmdr. Sundel.

* * *
Those five defense lawyers have mounted a surprisingly vigorous counterattack on the commission process. They say that while gearing up for prosecution, the Pentagon has neglected their side and left it in disarray. Mr. Qosi's attorney, Air Force Lt. Col. Sharon Shaffer, was reassigned in July, leaving it unclear whether she can continue to represent her client. Cmdr. Sundel recently was denied promotion, effectively ending his career in the Navy's up-or-out system.

Col. Shaffer says she lacks the resources to build a defense. She has no law clerk or research assistant and fears she will lose her interpreter: The government hasn't paid his bills, which now exceed $14,000. "I have screamed and screamed to everyone, I have warned everyone that he's on the verge of quitting," but received no response, she says. Mr. Hamdan's attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, says his interpreter is owed $40,000.
Analysis: Mr. Bravin's article reports on a litany of other issues plaguing the upcoming tribunal prosecutions, such as potential conflicts of interest between the attorneys on the government side and the judges. But the real meat of the story is this lack-of-resources problem. And here's why: the President has pledged to make these "full and fair" trials, notwithstanding their departures from well-settled military and civilian criminal law. Few scholars believe that's possible, given the way the tribunal rules and procedures are currently written. So far, the best hope for the administration has been these defense attorneys -- whose zealous pursuit of justice has lended an air of legitimacy to the tribunals which they would otherwise not have. By hobbling the defense attorneys in this case with a lack of resources, the Pentagon has undermined the most important and most visible source of legitimacy for these tribunals. Men like USMC Maj. Michael Mori, detailed to defend Austrailian prisoner David Hicks, have become literal folk heroes around the world for their stand on this issue. Their ability to continue the fight on behalf of their clients may well save these proceedings from being seen as "kangaroo courts", to borrow Bill Safire's phrase. Thus, if the Pentagon and the White House really want these proceedings to be fair, and to be perceived as such, they will rectify these resource shortfalls quickly.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Combat veterans face a second fight on the homefront
Esther Schrader has a compelling article in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times detailing the obstacles faced by Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who have come home in need of medical care or other assistance from the government. Suffice to say, it hasn't been easy. And though these vets are accustomed to fighting for what they need, it really chaps my hide to read about the structural issues facing the VA which have set the conditions for these kinds of situations.
For Briseno and his family — as for thousands of others wounded in the Iraq war — the transition from the life they knew as soldiers to a future as disabled veterans is filled with frustration and pain. The military is more efficient than ever in treating its wounded. But after the battle-scarred leave Army hospitals, they often find themselves on their own in an unfamiliar and difficult-to-navigate thicket of benefits and services.

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, 6,239 troops had been wounded in action, according to a recent Pentagon count. Of those, 57% were so severely injured that they were unable to return to duty. Medically retired from active duty military service, they need immediate assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system.

The surge of newly disabled veterans represents a challenge of a magnitude unseen since Vietnam.

Aware of potential pitfalls, the Army and the VA have started programs to reach out to the most severely wounded soldiers. Among the steps being tried are putting social workers in hospitals where the severely wounded are being treated, adding benefits experts willing to meet bedside with soldiers and creating call centers that offer advice and help after the injured are sent home.

The pilot programs are small and nascent, and both the Army and the VA acknowledge they are not nearly enough.

* * *
In looking to the government for their healthcare needs, new veterans follow a long line of their predecessors who, since the Civil War, have been assured that the country they fought for would make its best efforts to take care of them.

But there have always been difficulties in following through. And the VA is a difficult bureaucracy to navigate in even the best of circumstances, much less when dealing with devastating injuries.

For decades, the VA, with 7.5 million veterans enrolled, has struggled to keep up. At any one time, more than 3,000 vets are waiting for their first visit to the doctor. Those whose injuries from battle qualify them for disability compensation often wait six months to two years to receive it. The VA has taken steps to cut the wait for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said Terry Jemison, a VA spokesman. In recent months, it has begun to station benefits experts at the military bases of returning units. Newly discharged soldiers who have been helped by these experts have waited 54 days on average to get their first veteran disability compensation checks.

But with the VA's costs increasing by 10% to 15% a year, with aging facilities in need of modernization and with the newly disabled veterans draining resources, "the system is under a strain, a serious strain," said David Uchic, spokesman for Paralyzed Veterans of America, which was founded in 1946 to represent soldiers with spinal cord injury or disease.
America's vets deserve better. When we were attacked on 9/11, our nation went to war. Our leaders launched a war in Afghanistan to go after Al Qaeda, and then launched another war in Iraq purportedly as part of the global war on terrorism. Since 9/11, we have sent significantly more than a quarter million men and women into harm's way to fight for our country. We knew that many of these men and women would be shot at, and we knew that some would be wounded. Some would even die, no matter how well we did our jobs. Yet, despite this knowledge, we failed to adequately "plus up" our military medical systems to deal with the bow wave of casualties. And more significantly, we failed to invest in the VA when we had the opportunity in 2002 and 2003 to deal with the numbers of combat vets now streaming out of the service into VA hands. In my eyes, that's a breach of the sacred trust which exists between soldiers and the state. Our volunteer forces goes into harm's way with the expectation that they will be taken care of. And yet, as Ms. Schrader's story indicates, there a number of soldiers who have not been adequately or effectively taken care of by the VA system.

Some time ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on a similar case, that of Army Spec. Jason Stiffler, and his seemingly endless fight with the VA and Army bureaucracies that handle disability payments. A major problem exists in the disability evaluation and adjudication stage of the process, where there exists a tremendous bottleneck due to too few resources and too much demand. The short-term answer is probably to do more of what the VA has been doing for some time -- to augment its medical evaluation staff with civilian medical personnel on contract, and to farm out the evaluation work itself to civilian health-care providers. At some point, this surge in disability evaluations will pass, and I think that's the best way to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

There's a second problem though, and that stems from the lack of resources in the entire VA system to take care of America's vets. Simply put, there are too few beds, too few docs, too few clinics, and too little money to provide the care for this generation of combat veterans. 10 or 20 years ago, this might not have been such a big deal. But civilian health care is increasingly expensive, and the military can't externalize the burden of providing for veterans' medical care as easily as it could in the past. Vets (like all of us) have to pay more for their medical care than in the past, and that often means making choices about how much coverage to take. Insurance companies are going to enforce policy exclusions more strictly, and will be loath to pay for injuries sustained in combat when they should ostensibly be handled by the VA or the military. And so, the veteran will be caught in the middle, between shrinking VA medical care capabilities and increasingly expensive civilian health care options.

Over time, this crunch may ease. The U.S. veteran population today stands at 25 million. However, it is shrinking due to the aging of the WWII/Korea generation, and the fact that our all-volunteer force produces a significantly lower number of veterans than the old conscription-based force did. Thus, in 10 years, today's vets may have an easier time getting medical care because they won't be competing with as many WWII and Korea vets. But I'm not sure that's a good answer, because there is a crunch today, and our veterans need care today. We can't just push this problem off into the future.

The long-term answer is probably to invest more money in the VA -- both to upgrade its infrastructure and to build more capacity. Such investment will cost real money -- measured in federal budget terms as money that exceeds 10 figures. But it will be well spent. These are America's finest sons and daughters, and they have gone into harm's way for us. Providing adequate VA medical care for them is, quite literally, the least that we can do.