As the nation honors its veterans Thursday, some advocates say too many are falling through the cracks.
After serving 410 days in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division, Spc. Stuart Wilf came home to Colorado on Oct. 2. He changed his clothes, borrowed his mother's car, and went out with friends to celebrate.
On the way home, he fell asleep at the wheel and had a head-on collision with a tree. He survived, but since he was newly discharged, he had no health insurance.
"That was a mind-boggling thing to find out the first day he's out of the service," says his mother, Becky Wilf. "His bill was $54,000 just for the hospital. That doesn't include the surgeon."
Specialist Wilf is just one of thousands of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who advocates contend are falling through the cracks of a federal system unprepared to deal with so many soldiers. After spending months in a war zone, many of the 170,000 soldiers who've returned home are struggling with their transition to back to civilian life - from coping with a maze of red tape and contradictory messages on healthcare to finding affordable housing and jobs with adequate incomes to accessing disability payments.
One of the biggest problems, according to advocates and a report by the Government Accountability Office, is a lack of resources to deal with battle fatigue, or posttraumatic stress disorder, as it's now called. Another is providing support for Reserve and National Guard troops, who make up 45 percent of the troops in Iraq.
"The bottom line is that the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] wasn't prepared for the 33,000 troops that have come back and gone to the VA needing care," says Paul Rieckhoff of Operation Truth, a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "They're definitely not ready for the flood that's going to come back next year."
The VA disputes that and says it has ordered its services so that returning veterans will receive top-priority care. Last year, it announced that it would no longer be able to provide health services to veterans who make more than $26,000 a year (on average) and have no service-connected health problems. As a result, VA spokeswoman Cynthia Church says that what were once "unbelievable wait times" have been reduced. That allows the VA to treat returning combat veterans who were wounded or have service-related problems for free for two years.