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For wounded veterans, the war goes on

Since combat began in Afghanistan in October 2001, nearly 20,000 American military personnel have been wounded in action, according to the Defense Department. Many of these injuries have been life-threatening, requiring multiple surgeries, extensive rehabilitation and ongoing care.

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But the immediate financial and logistical challenge of coping with the thousands of severely wounded is just the first problem military and civilian authorities face.

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Down the road, these active-duty and reservist military personnel will need employment, housing and health-care assistance for years to come. And with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq continuing, with no end in sight, it is likely that more will be killed or wounded in action.

A study by the Insurance Information Institute, or III, reports that the average soldier in Iraq has a 1-in-300 chance of being wounded in action. Department of Defense statistics reveal that nearly 500 personnel are wounded in action in any given month. Extrapolating from these figures, the III study estimates that, absent a significant drawdown of troop strength in the near future, 60,000 to 80,000 troops may ultimately end up wounded.

Government programs and facilities are overwhelmed, and civilian employers and health-care providers also must prepare to deal with wounded and traumatized vets in the years to come.

"While the vast majority of military personnel will enjoy a relatively seamless re-entry to civilian life and employment, following a pattern established by veterans of past conflicts, reintegration of the physically and psychologically injured will likely present unexpected challenges to a generation of employers with no experience in dealing with such large numbers of returning veterans," says Robert Hartwig, author of the III study and the institute's chief economist.

How the military handles injuries
The military divides those wounded in action into several classifications, including very seriously injured, seriously ill or injured, incapacitating illness or injury, or not seriously injured.

All service members are assigned case managers to work with them and their relatives during their recovery periods, according to the Department of Defense. The services may pay for travel expenses and housing for up to three close relatives of very seriously or seriously injured personnel so that they can be with their wounded relatives.

Seriously wounded and very seriously wounded service members are generally treated at one of eight designated medical facilities, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA, work together to ensure that wounded service members get the medical care and benefits they need.

While the system is working more efficiently than it ever has, resources are very strained, says Joe Violante, national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans.

"The funding for the VA always seems to fall short of what is needed, and that results in delays in treatment and care for all veterans," he says. "In fact, in 2005 the VA was more than $1 billion short in funds and was forced to use funds earmarked for facility maintenance and capital improvements for daily operations. This means there are VA facilities where the operating rooms have no air conditioning and buildings that are literally falling apart."

 
 
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