In The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans, Aaron Glantz reports on the crisis of neglect that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face. His first book, How America Lost Iraq, chronicled a devastating firsthand account of the Bush administration's misguided policies in Iraq. Currently a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism at the Carter Center, Gantz leads a panel discussion around The War Comes Home at the Carter Presidential Library Tues., Feb. 17, at 7 p.m.
What changed during the few years you spent reporting from Iraq?
When I was there in April 2003, I had gone with a real bias against the war, but I confronted people who were incredibly relieved that Saddam Hussein was finally gone. Then, over a period of years, I watched that good feeling dissipate. ... I saw the Iraqi people's opinion of the Americans really diminish to the point where most people were actually supporting the insurgency.
Can you explain Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and what that means for veterans?
The difference between someone who gets in an auto accident and the kind of experience that our soldiers go through is that they are experiencing that kind of trauma over and over and over again during their deployment – imagine if you got in a car accident every day for a year.
In addition, our veterans are dealing with their military training. When you are over there, you are told over and over again, "Don't trust anyone. Be vigilant all the time. Somebody might be trying to kill you." You sleep with your machine gun in your bed with you and then you come home and your first day home they tell you, "OK, now it's completely different. Now you're absolutely safe." Suddenly, those things that you were doing in the war that were necessary for survival are seen as deviant. We expect our veterans to flip on a dime.
Your book contains a lot of resources for veterans, but they're mostly nonprofits or charities. What isn't the government doing for veterans?
The government isn't doing what it says it's doing – that's the point. The government promises to give people health care when they come home. The government promises to give people disability if they're wounded in the war. The government promises people all kinds of things, but as a matter of fact is not delivering on those promises. The entire system is set up to prevent people from accessing those programs. A lot of these programs do exist. We have a national program for veterans health care all across the country, but if you're a veteran and you show up at one of these hospitals, you're not met with, "Welcome home. What can we do to help you recover and get on with your life?" You're met with a pile of forms and the hope that you're discouraged and never actually use the services.
When you're traumatized, the last thing you can do is deal with red tape. We all are so frustrated when we have to deal with the IRS every year at tax time, but the IRS is a walk in the park compared to the way the VA is set up. You file your tax returns, the IRS believes you, they send your refund, and they go back later on and audit you to make sure you're telling the truth. With our veterans, they have to prove everything up front. ... Our wounded veterans, if we only treated them with the same amount of hostility that we treat taxpayers, it would be a huge improvement.