Debate over the cost of war intensifies

By Nicoletta Sabella
February 15, 2007

US Navy News/MCT

The hotly debated topic of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was focused recently on how much it will cost to treat veterans wounded in service over their lifetimes. A Harvard research study calculated the future cost to be between $300 billion and $600 billion, depending on how long these wars last.

Linda Bilmes, the researcher, calculated the cost based on the Pentagon number of 50,508 wounded to date.

When the Pentagon saw her prediction, she had to deal with a furious heat from them. More than that, the Pentagon revised the number of wounded soldiers down to 18,586 on the Pentagon Web site. What happened to those 31,992 missing soldiers?

It turns out the higher number includes injuries suffered in war zones that are not inflicted by the enemy such as mental illness resulting from combat and also injuries such as vehicle crashes.

However, veterans will be treated at the government’s expense for all those injuries at Veterans Administration facilities for the rest of their lives.

Bilmes calls attention to the costs spent on troops in Iraq as well as the cost spent on those returning. She said that with medical advances there are more troops who are injured instead of more who are dying, unlike the situation for Vietnam.

“But what’s equally alarming – and far less well known – is that for every fatality in Iraq, there are 16 injuries,” Bilmes said. She said that in Vietnam and the Korean wars there were fewer than three, and fewer than two in World War II, concluding that there are over 50,000 wounded Iraq soldiers currently.

Bilmes teaches public finance at the Kennedy School of Government. She and Joseph Stiglitz, her co-author and a Nobel-prize economist at Columbia University, released “The Economic Costs of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years After the Beginning of the Conflict,” a 36-page report that analyzes details from the budgetary cost and future spending, to military fatalities and the global effects of war.

Bilmes also did a piece called, “Soldiers Returning from Iraq and Afghanistan: The Long-term Cost of Providing Veterans Medical Care and Disability Benefits,” a 21-page report dissecting the medical costs and medical care process for veterans.

“If the new Congress really wants to support our troops, it should start by spending a few more pennies on the ones who have already fought and come home,” Bilmes said in her LA Times article.

After Bilmes wrote about estimated 50,000 wounded Iraq soldiers, William Winkenwender Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, argued that the figure was really about half of that. He demanded to know where she got her information. Contrary to what he thought, Bilmes got her data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which gets its data from the Pentagon. A few days after hearing from Winkenwender, Bilmes found that the numbers were changed on the website from which she got them.

The point that Bilmes brings up is the fact that the medical needs not only include combat injuries, but also non-combat related injuries and mental health conditions. These are not tallied in when the government speaks of the overall cost.

Roy Thompson, a Vietnam veteran who served as a combat infantryman, was one of the troops in combat who had a non-combat related injury.

“I did have an associated injury where I was given a 10 percent disability from an injury that I received in the military, not directly related to any combat or anything, but it was just something that happened,” Thompson said.

He believes that the government should be supporting the needs of those who have been in combat and are now at home, but he said he hasn’t used his own war benefits for over 35 years.

“I’m sure there were a lot of soldiers sent home from Vietnam that had post-traumatic stress disorder, but not as great as we have what’s going on with Iraq because our diagnoses is much better today,” Thompson said.

“So far, more than 200,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at VA medical facilities – three times what the VA projected, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis,” Bilmes said.

A component that Bilmes argues is that most American’s forget about the fact that more veterans are being treated for mental health issues. More than one-third are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse.

“But my ultimate feeling is the United States sent those boys over there, they did their job, they did it admirably, they did it heroically, but whatever their treatment needs are I think that the country is obligated to provide it. I don’t think we do enough for our veterans,” Thompson said.

Nicoletta Sabella

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