Caring for the South's veterans

Veterans Day has a special meaning in the South. As the Institute has documented, a disproportionate share of the nation's soldiers come from and are based in the South, and the armed services have a central place in Southern life and politics.

According to the 2000 Census, about 36% of the nation's veterans live in Southern states. The concentration is especially pronounced in Southern military towns: nine of the 10 cities with the highest veteran populations are in the South, usually near bases like Fort Benning, GA where my dad was stationed in the Army.

10 Cities with Highest Percentage of Veterans

Place: Number of veterans / Percent veterans

Hampton, Va.: 28,312 / 27.1
Clarksville, Tenn.: 15,319 / 24.4
Fayetteville, N.C.: 19,060 / 23.7
Virginia Beach, Va.: 60,260 / 21.7
Colorado Springs, Colo.: 51,609 / 20.2
Norfolk, Va.: 30,068 / 19.9
Newport News, Va.: 24,021 / 19.9
Columbus, Ga.: 24,984 / 19.6
Chesapeake, Va.: 25,621 / 18.9
Portsmouth, Va.: 12,955 / 18.4

The Census also notes that, as of 2000, the South was the only region where the veteran population was growing*:

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of veterans decreased in every region except the South, where they increased from 9.3 million to 9.9 million.

How does our country care for its veterans? Last year, a series in The Washington Post on deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- the Army's top medical facility -- described a system completely over-taxed after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.

The revelations were especially shocking given that the Veteran's Administration health system had largely turned itself around after a spate of bad publicity in the 1990s. As the Washington Monthly reported, by 2003 the government-run VA hospitals were out-performing private healthcare facilities in providing good care and being held up as a model for reforming the nation's health system.

But a spike in new veterans has caused the system to be woefully over-taxed. And there are still plenty of gaps, especially with people trying to get into the system. For example, an investigation in The Nation revealed that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq were often being diagnosed with "personality disorder" instead of post-traumatic stress -- and therefore being denied benefits and VA care.

At a time when war has led to a greater demand for VA resources, the Bush Administration has also sought to scale back benefits and coverage, as the AP reported:

The Bush administration plans to cut funding for veterans' health care two years from now - even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.

Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012.

After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly - by more than 10 percent in many years - White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.

Hopefully, 2009 brings a new federal commitment to ensuring the health and well-being of the veterans we honor today.

* The Census Bureau uses a slightly different definition of the South than the Institute, but using our definition doesn't change this finding.