June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Protecting those who protect us

6 min read
Because a separate department pays for service-related injuries, the Department of Defense has little incentive to take simple measures to prevent those injuries.

by Marty Wilde

In my new job with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, I review denials of disability benefits for veterans and, as the law requires, do my level best to get them the benefits they have earned.  What strikes me most is just how preventable most of their injuries are.  If the military had taken the easiest of preventive measures, it would reduce or eliminate the most common injuries I see:

  • Tinnitus
  • Consequences of environmental exposures from Agent Orange and burn pits
  • Mental health conditions.


Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, and hearing loss are the most common injuries from military service.  Some 2.7 million veterans suffer from tinnitus, which provides a maximum of 10% disability rating.  Setting aside the very real human costs, tinnitus alone costs the U.S. Treasury at least $5 billion per year in benefits.

The costs of tinnitus and hearing loss primarily fall on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, not the Department of Defense, providing little incentive for DoD to spend money on prevention.  Preventing tinnitus is simple – just provide comfortable and effective over-the-ear hearing protection that is compatible with the standard military helmet and communications gear.  DoD only provides this higher-end hearing protection to specialized personnel who experience hazardous noise in their daily duties, neglecting the vast majority of military personnel whose periodic exposure still leaves them with tinnitus. 

Rather than push DoD on prevention of tinnitus, the VA—the agency tasked with caring for veterans—has proposed eliminating disability compensation for it.  The priority is dollars, not about veterans, when it comes to the budget.

Agent Orange and burn pits

The fantastic progress we have made in the last few years in providing veterans benefits from the consequences of exposure to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other environmental exposures incident to service should not overshadow how preventable these exposures were in the first place. 

The toxicity of the components of Agent Orange were known as early as 1952, and Monsanto reported the possible toxicity of Agent Orange itself in 1962, but it wasn’t banned until 1971.  Congress did not grant VA benefits for Agent Orange exposure until 1991.  The VA estimates that over 2.6 million veterans were exposed to the 11 million gallons of Agent Orange used in Southeast Asia. 

The Government Accountability Office recently estimated 10-year costs of Agent Orange exposure at $17 billion to $26 billion, which does not consider the approximately 300,000 veterans who have died from their exposure.  The costs would be higher, but too many veterans have died before receiving their benefits.

The case of burn pits is even simpler – no one ever pretended that burning all manner of refuse from plastic to hazardous waste to human waste on U.S. posts did not cause adverse health consequences.  Approximately 3.5 million veterans were exposed, with an estimated cost of $800 billion over 10 years.  No one can say how many veterans will die from burn pits, because the health effects are still surfacing years later. 

There were alternatives to Agent Orange and burn pits.  We just chose not to use them, mostly because they would have been more expensive to DoD.  For both Agent Orange and burn pit injuries, it took Congressional action to force the VA to pay compensation to disabled veterans.  The science was clear, but DoD and VA preferred to let veterans bear the costs, not their budgets.

Mental health conditions

Mental health injuries are also often avoidable.  A 2014 report from the Institute of Medicine, under a Congressional mandate, produced a report recommending mental health screenings at every stage of military service.  Yet, when I retired after over 28 years of service this year, including three deployments and two other long activations, I did not receive any sort of mental health screening. 

The records I review tell the same story – either no screening at all or a perfunctory check upon exiting from the service, with the veteran having the full knowledge that admitting a mental health condition will likely slow their separation from the military service that caused them this injury in the first place. 

While we have made some progress in addressing the stigma around mental illness, we still do little to prevent it.  Sexual assaults of service members, a common cause of mental health injuries, reached an estimated 36,000 attacks last year, and are still rising.  While the military has finally admitted the problem, military culture is still unfriendly to reporting.  Only about 20% of attacks are reported.  When it comes to providing preventive mental health services and advice, it is still only large units or special forces that have dedicated mental health professionals assigned.

The cost is profound – an average of 17 veterans commit suicide each day, veterans are 50% more likely to die by suicide, and almost 2 million veterans have service-connected mental health conditions.  While we cannot put a financial cost on these lives, the VA spends $16 billion each year on mental health services alone, independent of disability compensation for service-connected veterans.

Take action to support our veterans

Disability rates among veterans are getting worse, not better. Post-9/11 veterans have a disability rate of 41%, while the average for all veterans is 25%.  These numbers significantly underreport the actual rates for the reserve components, where claims are consistently died at a rate of 10-20% less than active duty members. To make matters worse, Congress has imposed mandatory cuts to the VA budget if they can’t pass their budgets on time – punishing veterans for Congress’s own dysfunction.  Of the VA’s three recent proposed revisions to the disability benefits regulations, two would significantly cut veterans’ benefits.  

If reading this made you angry, I encourage you to write your congressional representatives: 

Please ask them to do three things:

  1. Pass a VA budget that fully funds the benefits veterans have earned serving our country;
  2. Require that the Department of Defense implement measures to prevent the most common VA disabilities; and
  3. Prohibit retaliation against service members for honestly reporting their injuries while in service. 

To support veterans, let’s prevent them from getting avoidable injuries while protecting us.

Marty Wilde is a retired member of the Air Force and an employee of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.  The views expressed herein are his own and not necessarily those of the Department of the Air Force or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Subscribe to his Letters From a Recovering Politician at https://martywilde.substack.com/subscribe.

Here is a sample letter you are welcome to use when you contact your representatives:

I want to express my concern that not enough is being done to prevent service members from getting injured in the service. I request that you support legislation that do three things:

  1. Fund the Department of Veterans Affairs at a level that fully compensates veterans for their service-connected injuries and ensures that they receive the healthcare they need. Specifically, I ask that you eliminate the mandatory one percent cuts that will occur in the VA budget if all of the spending bills are not passed by the end of the calendar year.
  2. Require the Department of Defense to annually screen servicemembers, both active duty and in the reserve component, for the ten most common VA disabilities and implement measures to prevent these injuries and illnesses. DoD has been too willing to pass the long-term costs of preventable disabilities like hearing loss, toxic exposures, and mental health injuries onto the VA and veterans themselves, rather than take basic preventive measures.
  3. Protect veterans and servicemembers from retaliation and discrimination by providing whistleblower protections to those that report their injuries and illnesses. For too long, we have tolerated a culture that hides injuries, rather than heals them.

Honoring veterans means protecting them from preventable injuries. We have failed in that mission for too long. It is the least we can do to protect those who protect us.

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