Today is our 4,608th day in Afghanistan.
We'll start this morning as we always do; with the latest casualty figures from our ongoing war, courtesy of Antiwar.com:
US Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 2,319
Other Military Deaths - Afghanistan: 1,119
We find this morning's cost of war passing through: $ 1, 535, 324, 900, 000. 00
I've got a mixed bag this morning, so we'll dive right in.
As we're aware, most veterans have long waits and tremendous difficulties in accessing their healthcare benefits. Every now and again, one improvement or another happens and everybody celebrates it as a big "success" and the stories drop out of the news again. But this doesn't address the personnel...most of the veterans trying to get benefits have actually never seen a shot fired in anger. (It's true; only a small percentage of all our veterans have ever been in combat.) But suppose you're an ordinary Joe that's made some mistakes...where do you fall in line?
In the midst of a life scarred with mistakes, Dwight Alexander did one thing right in the eyes of society.
He joined the Army.
Before that, he got caught buying goods with a stolen credit card. Afterward, he became addicted to crack cocaine.
During his 26-month Army stint, something went wrong enough that Alexander's discharge papers say "other than honorable."
For years - decades, actually - that didn't matter to him. Now it does.
At 61, he's fresh out of prison, staying at the Union Mission homeless shelter in Norfolk, trying to build a better life piece by piece.
He wishes he could get veteran benefits, including medical care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but his discharge status makes that impossible for now, questionable at best for the future.
Over nearly four months, doctors with charity programs have set his broken leg, checked his blood-sugar levels and signed him up for more care. But Alexander worries about relying on them over the long term.
"Some hospitals will not deal with uninsured people," he said. "I have nothing now."
Alexander doesn't qualify for Medicaid, the government insurance for the poor, but he would if Virginia's General Assembly decides to expand the program under the federal Affordable Care Act. Expansion is a sticking point in the ongoing budget impasse.
About 12,300 of Virginia's 840,400 veterans could be in the same situation, according to statistics from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Some Democrats have referenced them as a reason for expanding Medicaid.
"The least we can do for these brave individuals, many with serious medical conditions, is ensure that they and their families have access to affordable and quality health care," wrote Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, an Army veteran, in an opinion piece published in February in The Pilot.
Republicans say this small population would be better served by existing programs bolstered by their proposed budget, such as free clinics and community health centers, or through other improvements to Virginia's system.
Largely left unsaid: Most veterans disqualified from VA health care either served less than two years or have military records with serious flaws.
They aren't in the vast majority of veterans, who leave the military with an "honorable" discharge, said Donald Gordon, a Pennsylvania attorney who specializes in military law.
They don't have a discharge status of "general under honorable conditions" either. They are the ones with a "bad conduct" or "dishonorable" discharge - designations that typically come after a court-martial or a guilty plea in relation to crimes, such as drug dealing, rape or murder.
Others who left the service "under conditions other than honorable" logged a significant, though not catastrophic deficiency: a pattern of underage drinking, for example, or an extended period of absence without leave.
Some get that discharge designation for drug use, then face a conundrum: They're unable to get VA health care for an addiction they say they formed trying to cope with the stress of service.
Asked whether he realized that a large proportion of uninsured veterans were not honorably discharged, Northam replied in an email from his policy director: "There are a number of different reasons why Veterans don't qualify for VA benefits. In addition, there are some veterans who qualify for VA benefits but live in very rural parts of the state and can't easily access those benefits, so some of these vets would also benefit from Medicaid expansion."
But that's just one problem. We've all written about this before; many vets are now homeless, or are in less than stable housing situations, and they often have a higher percentage of joblessness and other things. Of course, that means food insecurity, too.
One in four recently separated U.S. veterans may not be able to consistently put food on their tables, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The Public Health Nutrition journal study, titled “Food Insecurity & Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans,” surveyed more than 900 young veterans and found 27 percent reported problems with getting enough food for three meals a day. That’s about twice as high as the overall national rate.
Study author Rachel Widome, a University of Minnesota health professor, called the findings “shocking and disheartening.” Investigators launched the study two years ago after tracking reports about financial hardships among young veterans.
“We really had no idea how common it was that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were struggling to afford food,” she said. “Given anecdotal accounts, I thought food insecurity might be somewhat of an issue, but really had no idea of the extent.”
About 12 percent of the veterans surveyed were classified as having “very low food security,” marking severe difficulties in reliably getting meals.
The study was conducted with the Minneapolis VA Health Care system and featured only veterans from Minnesota. Authors said the findings indicate serious challenges for younger veterans and their families.
Widome said veterans struggling with food problems also reported struggling with other life stress, including sleep problems, substance abuse and employment difficulties.
“For those of us who work with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans either in health care or social service settings, it is important to be aware that these veterans may also have another hidden struggle,” she said.
“We need to work on connecting veterans in need with food assistance programs, or even better, assisting them with finding employment that provides a secure livable wage after deployment.”
But of course, the warhawks in Congress are only interested in starting more wars, and indeed creating more combat veterans. We all know what is going on in Ukraine these days, and while we aren't directly involved, Russia's northern neighbors are currently the beneficiary of some American "Advisors". 600 combat troops are currently in Lithuania as "trainers"
...which we all know is how it starts.
RUKLA TRAINING AREA, Lithuania — The commander of U.S. Army Europe said Tuesday that he wants to add helicopters and other combat tools to the mix to bolster training with the Baltics and Poland, where the U.S. has sent some 600 paratroops to train and reassure allies wary of a newly aggressive Russia.
A company of American soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team that arrived in Lithuania over the weekend began its first full day of training with Lithuanian ground forces Tuesday, conducting live-fire exercises on various light weapons systems at a former Soviet military base.
U.S. and Lithuanian forces have deployed together over the last two decades to conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the deployment of U.S. forces to Lithuania “shows that we can rely on our ally” to help in the Baltics as well, Maj. Gen. Almantas Leika, Lithuania’s land forces commander, said. “This is a very clear signal, and we read the signal very clearly.”
The three Baltic countries, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Poland, have sought a greater presence of U.S. and NATO forces on their territory since Russia’s annexing of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. All four countries border Russia, and the Baltic nations were annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II.
Estonia’s defense minister, Sven Mikser, was in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Estonia is being considered as a host for aircraft for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, and a company of U.S. troops from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team arrived in Estonia on Monday for bilateral exercises. During the meeting, Hagel expressed an interest in beefing up two annual multinational exercises that will take place in the Baltics in June — BALTOPS and Saber Strike — by potentially adding additional U.S. aircraft or ships that are already in Europe, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters. The exercises were long-scheduled, and no final decisions have been made about adding additional assets to the exercises, Kirby said.
Lithuania’s active military numbers just 4,000 active land forces — roughly the size of an American brigade combat team. The country has another 4,000 soldiers in reserve.
There's plenty more today, but I think I'll leave it at that.