April 20, 2008 / 1:04 PM / 12 years ago

PREVIEW-Distressed U.S. war veterans get day in court

By Adam Tanner

SAN FRANCISCO, April 20 (Reuters) - Veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere who say they have systematically been denied proper medical care will get their day in federal court starting on Monday in San Francisco.

The lawsuit before a judge in U.S. District Court for Northern California claims the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was unable to deal with the growing number of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, cases emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Unless systemic and drastic measures are instituted immediately, the costs to these veterans, their families, and our nation will be incalculable, including broken families, a new generation of unemployed and homeless veterans, increases in drug abuse and alcoholism, and crushing burdens on the health care delivery system and other social services in our communities," the suit said.

Some of those in the suit say they have suffered from PTSD for many years, even before the most recent wars highlighted the fate of many Americans who served in difficult combat abroad.

Those saying the VA failed them include Barbara Bachmeier, 54, who reports she was sexually harassed and raped in South Korea in the 1980s while working in military intelligence for the U.S. Army, and then received insufficient care.

"I was having all these various flashbacks and nightmares," the Alaska resident said in an interview. "But the VA does not want to pay disability payments unless they really have to."

"Their attitude is not what can we do to help you," she said, explaining she once considered suicide. "It was very difficult to navigate the VA system."

In proceedings that could last through May 1, the court will hear testimony not from former service members such as Bachmeier, but from administrators and officials involved in the system.

"He (the judge) can’t actually make decisions about individual issues and while having a veteran talking about their individual experiences is emblematic of the problem, it’s not particularly useful for the judge because he needs to hear about systemic problems," said Kasey Corbit, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers declined to discuss the case, but in a filing last Monday said the VA procedures had stood the test of time.

"Their attempt to force VA to overhaul its entire benefits systems under penalty of contempt must fail," defense lawyers wrote. "The specific remedies sought by plaintiffs are not within this Court’s authority to grant."

Plaintiffs are hoping the judge will order broad changes in the administration of veterans’ benefits or perhaps even appoint an outside administrator to oversee changes.

"We are hoping that there will be a few measures implemented pretty quickly such as immediate treatment of suicidal victims," Corbit said. (Reporting by Adam Tanner; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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