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Wounded troops overwhelm care

The current means of caring for returning vets is antiquated, compounding concern over the long-term cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Six years into the "global war on terror," the Bush administration, Congress, and federal agencies are scrambling to address the health needs of battlefield veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Bush acknowledges that the current means of caring for wounded and traumatized vets is "an antiquated system that needs to be changed." A bipartisan commission says the need for fundamental improvements in care management and the disability system "requires a sense of urgency and strong leadership."

As a result, Mr. Bush has proposed administrative action and legislation that would streamline the system for providing postwar medical services and disability compensation to wounded veterans and their families.

The numbers are daunting:

•Of the more than 1.4 million service men and women who have served in the two war zones, nearly 700,000 have become eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care, of whom about 230,000 have sought such care since 2002.

• Depending on future force deployments, VA medical costs associated with Iraq and Afghanistan could total between $7 billion and $9 billion over the next decade, according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections. Disability compensation and survivors' benefits could add another $3 billion to $4 billion.

• A total of about 30,000 troops have been wounded in action. The survival rate of those wounded is higher than it was in Vietnam and much higher than World War II, due to body armor, advances in battlefield medical procedures, and more rapid evacuation.

Put another way, this means the number of those killed is a relatively smaller portion of overall casualties. It also means concern is growing about injuries and ailments that have come to mark this war: amputations, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and the mental and emotional shock of combat.

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