PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Presidential contender John Edwards introduced a $400 million plan Monday to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, including those recently returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Under Edwards' plan, veterans could seek counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder outside the Veterans Health Administration system; the number of counselors would increase; and family members would be used to identify cases of PTSD.
"When they come home, they're basically left on their own. They didn't leave us on our own, and we should not be leaving them on their own," said Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina.
Edwards said that despite his opposition to how the war has been waged, the enlisted men and women deserve the nation's support when they complete their service.
"This is a place where America needs to honor its responsibility, again, like generations before of us have honored those who have served this country patriotically," he said, invoking how the United States treated its World War II veterans.
A recent study of Veterans Affairs records showed that the number of veterans with PTSD increased by almost 20,000 during the past fiscal year -- a jump of almost 70 percent.
"They don't have lobbyists in Washington. They don't have somebody in there pushing what needs to be done for them. It seems to me like we have a sacred responsibility to men and women who are coming back to America who have met their responsibility and are counting America meeting its responsibility," Edwards said during a speech at New Hampshire's Plymouth State University.
Edwards said the Bush administration's extension of tours to 15 months has only exacerbated the situation, and he promised to increase the time given to service members between deployment.
"We've had this incredible tempo of deployments, which means in many cases that men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder get redeployed when they actually have it," he said.
A Defense Department study this year showed that inadequate time stateside led to higher rates of PTSD or aggravated mental stress from service in the field.
Edwards' campaign said there are too few trained counselors in the networks available to veterans. As such, they avoid seeking care because of the wait or the stigma. Instead, Edwards said he would increase counseling and training for counselors and allow veterans to seek treatment outside of the existing system.
The VA currently has a backlog of as many as 600,000 claims, increasing delays for initial treatment by up to six months.
"Half a million, that's what the backlog is right now. Half a million. This cannot continue," Edwards said.
Edwards pledged the entire backlog would be eliminated by Memorial Day 2009 -- four months after he might take office -- and would cut the processing time by half.
Edwards' plan also would provide a comprehensive medical examination, which would be part of a "Homefront Redeployment Plan" provided to every veteran. Edwards said veterans don't receive their first examinations for months or years after leaving the service, making it more difficult to determine whether an injury is service related or not.
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