A Vietnam veteran friend of mine finally qualified for disability benefits last week, only 40 years after he was first disabled in the war, and 20 years after being diagnosed with diabetes. He finally had a major stroke, after a series of small ones.
It was one of those cases that are now common with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, where some mix of brain injury, chemical contamination, and trauma left him increasingly disabled. I think his diabetes was just one more side effect of military service.
Diabetes is considered a combat-related condition for Vietnam vets because of the herbicide Agent Orange, to which some soldiers and many Vietnamese were exposed. However, among all veterans of all wars receiving Veterans Affairs (VA) health care, the rate of diabetes is more than twice the rate in the general population. Like everyone else with Type 2, their “lifestyle” is blamed for it. But could veterans really have such a dramatically different lifestyle? Does that even make sense? Or are there better explanations?
Two huge factors jump out — stress and pollution. Military service in a war zone is stressful and traumatic, whether you are physically wounded or not. Feeling that you are in danger all the time will weaken your immune system and create insulin resistance, as I have reported before. Using violence against others is also traumatic.
Trauma, if not treated and resolved, can leave your body stressed for life. It’s no wonder veterans have high rates of drinking and smoking, both of which are perceived as stress relievers. Some veterans may also medicate with sugars, which can temporarily reduce stress. But even without these problem behaviors, chronic stress tends to raise blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
Agent Orange was one major pollutant, but the Pentagon uses all kinds of chemicals and now uses the radioactive substance depleted uranium as well. Many closed military bases become Superfund sites because they are so polluted. The communities near those bases suffer, but soldiers have an even higher exposure to these pollutants because they live among them. As I’ve been reporting lately, pollution has strong links with diabetes.
Along with diabetes, veterans also have higher rates of other health conditions, including depression and chronic pain. Serving in war really does not do much for your future quality of life, even if you survive. As my friend found out, it doesn’t even secure disability benefits.
Writer Joshua Kors has been documenting the VA’s denial of benefits to Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers with brain injury. Over 22,600 of these veterans have been disqualified for benefits because the government says that preexisting personality disorders, not trauma, were causing their problems.
This practice has become so widespread that an industry is growing up around appealing denials of VA benefits. It’s a long, drawn-out process of appeals and denials. Imagine having to conduct a campaign like this with a brain injury and PTSD!
I’m not saying anything against the dedicated nurses and other health professionals at the VA. Most of those folks are great. But their administration is no friend of the staff or of veterans.
Anyway, I realize this blog entry probably won’t help too many of our readers. But perhaps it will enable you to help some young person who is thinking of enlisting.
Prevent diabetes: Keep our young men and women out of wars.