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Iraq war's human toll could be felt for decades

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The war in Iraq (and in the other theaters of the war on terrorism around the world) is likely to produce other longer-term costs as well. For example, the impact of this conflict in Iraq could mean more instances of Gulf War Syndrome than the 100-hour ground war of 1991, due to much longer periods of exposure to chemicals, depleted uranium, and other toxic substances. (It may already be showing up in the form of more than 100 recent instances of respiratory illness among US soldiers in Iraq.)

Worse than earlier war

"This was by all accounts a vastly dirtier enterprise than the Gulf War was last time," says Larry Seaquist, retired US Navy warship commander and Pentagon strategist.

In addition, the impact of post-traumatic stress - tied to longer periods in the combat zone, more urban fighting, and the likelihood of double tours in Iraq - is expected to be greater as well. Several episodes of suicide and murder of spouses at Ft. Bragg last year by troops recently returned from Afghanistan have officials worried about - and expanding efforts to counter - the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a real bow wave of such problems still to come," says Captain Seaquist.

Big veterans' budget

All of this puts the spotlight on the overall costs of national defense, in particular the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is second only to the Defense Department in the size of its workforce. The VA expects to spend $59.6 billion this year, nearly all of that on health care and benefits for some 2.7 million veterans now receiving disability compensation or pensions.

As veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan join that group, says Seaquist, "we may see a freshly invigorated veterans' movement that is asking to make sure that ... veterans' rights are guarded."

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