The Austin American-Statesman spent six months inspecting state records of young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have died since returning from the war.
What they found was stunning: among the 266 dead for which they were able to gather information (there were 345 overall — almost two-thirds of Texas’s casualties in both wars!), one in three died from a drug overdose (a fatal combination of prescription pills or suicide), and nearly one in five were killed in a motor-vehicle crash, half involving alcohol and speeding.
These are by no means all the veterans who’ve died after coming home (the state sent a total of 53,000 men and women to the wars), just the vets who had sought VA care before their demise. But from what the paper was able to glean, 80 percent of the veterans who had died from drug overdose, suicide or in a motor accident, had been preliminarily diagnosed with PTSD.
The investigative team at the Statesman did not merely hunt down down toxicology reports, autopsy results, accident reports, inquests and obituaries, but also reached out to families for the veterans’ personal stories. What a painstaking reporting job this must have been! But thanks to the digging, the VA now has better information about Texas veterans than its own limited data could provide (the VA does not consistently keep track of individual causes of death). Now that the newspaper has shamed the government by doing its work for them, some positive systemic change may come about.
Despite cutbacks, state and local papers have continued to cover extended military communities. These communities stretch from giant Army bases and spill over into outlying cities and towns and the nearest VA hospitals or clinics. Some of the best coverage has come from reporters in these areas, like Dave Philipps at the Colorado Springs Gazette. In 2009 he published an intensive examination of the troubled 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team — chillingly dubbed the “Lethal Warriors”— at Fort Carson in Colorado. The series made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and helped bring the fallouts of combat stress into mainstream consciousness.
That isn’t to say that all good reporting on this issue is coming out of newspapers. Joshua Kors’s 2007 expose for The Nation about the Army discharging soldiers for personality disorders when they were likely suffering from PTSD or brain injuries spurred congressional action. Two years later, Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna published a series at Salon.com under the banner “Coming Home: The Army’s Fatal Neglect” about the struggle of combat veterans suffering from PTSD. The package, which weaved in powerful interviews with soldiers and vets, included a secret tape that suggested the Army was pressuring its psychologists not to diagnose soldiers with PTSD because of the cost to the Army. This too led to more investigations on Capitol Hill and within the service.
Meanwhile, the investigative news site Pro Publica has put a tremendous amount of resources into military and veterans issues, including the series, “Brain Wars: How the Military is Failing its Wounded,” and an equally riveting package of stories called “Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
“Gotcha”, snark and horse race reporting is the pablum we all live with, but it’s good to know there is still meaning in the news and that reporters are still attempting to make a difference for a population all too easily forgotten.