Beyond 'The Shooter': The long look at life after active duty

This week, the cover of Esquire features a story detailing one of the most vivid moments in recent American history: the killing of Osama bin Laden. The member of Navy SEAL Team 6 who shot bin Laden spoke to Phil Bronstein, executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The soldier, known as the Shooter, describes the intense operation leading up to bin Laden's final moments, but also shares another, darker side of the veteran experience: the challenges combat veterans face, even ones with millions of dollars in training and top security clearance, as they re-enter civilian life after returning home from war.

Last Veterans Day, President Barack Obama declared, “No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job, or a roof over their head, or the care they have earned when they come home.” But findings from years of reporting by CIR’s Aaron Glantz has shown that this has not proven true for many U.S. troops.

From the rising number of veteran suicides to the months-long wait time for a response from the VA on disability claims, Glantz’s reporting has shed significant light on problems within the Department of Veterans Affairs, and how these issues hurt those the country has promised to help.

Highlights from Glantz’s investigations into the VA include:

  • Three times as many California veterans are dying at home from suicide, motorcycle accidents and other high-risk behaviors than are dying in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Veterans in California are more than two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than those in the same age group with no military service.
  • The United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the VA to overhaul the system that the VA uses to process health care and disability claims, after the agency's “unchecked incompetence” led to major delays, creating hardship for vulnerable veterans.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs missed opportunities to help at-risk veterans get behavioral health services they needed.
  • Within the VA, the error rate on processing disability claims is high and speed is valued over accuracy. 

Glantz also has worked with CIR data reporter Shane Shifflett and designer David Suriano to track the backlog of disability claims within each of the VA's 58 regional offices, using an interactive map that updates weekly with fresh statistics from the VA.

CIR is not the only outlet revealing dysfunction within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mother Jones, in a story by Mac McCelland, examined whether post-traumatic stress disorder is contagious and how that impacts the families of recently returned veterans.

The Associated Press also took a look the risks of “gun therapy” for veterans and whether it causes violence or setbacks for troops affected by their time in battle. And this report from Stars and Stripes highlights the high unemployment rate for U.S. veterans.

Are you a veteran struggling with re-entry into civilian life? What are the biggest challenges you're facing as you leave active duty? Share your story through this Public Insight Network query. Your comments are confidential unless you expressly state otherwise.

And if you have any thoughts about how the VA can more effectively treat veterans who need its services, feel free to add to the comments, or as always, shoot me an email at mmcintosh@baycitizen.org.

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