The cost of providing medical and disability care for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is growing with each passing day, and peak spending will not occur for another 30 to 40 years.
The two wars are likely to be the most expensive in the history of the United States.
According to a 2013 study by Linda Bilmes of the Harvard Kennedy School, the U.S. will spend $4 trillion to $6 trillion on these wars, including military operations and veterans’ health care.
“The single largest accrued liability of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of providing medical care and disability benefits to war veterans,” the study reports. “Historically, the bill for these costs has come due many decades later.”
For example, spending for World War I vets didn’t reach its peak until 1969. The costs to treat World War II vets topped out in the 1980s.
And payments to Vietnam and Persian Gulf War vets are still growing.
About 2.5 million members of the military have served in the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports 59 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have been retired less than a year accessed government health care between October 2001 and March 2014. That’s more than 1 million soldiers.
According to the Harvard study, the cost of future medical and disability care for Iraq and Afghanistan vets is estimated at $836 billion.
Between October 2001 and March 2013, medical, disability and related costs for treating Iraq and Afghanistan vets totaled more than $134 billion, according to the study.
Meanwhile, the Veterans Affairs budget has risen from $97.7 billion in 2009 to $154 billion in 2014.
For the 2015 fiscal year, Veterans Affairs has requested $4.2 billion to cover health care needs for over 750,000 vets returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, up more than $500 million from the current year. With better diagnoses, particularly in the area of mental health, more treatment is being sought than in past generations when vets might have grabbed the bottle for relief.
Indeed, mental health diagnoses are the second most commonly treated ailment. Twenty-nine percent of the nearly 900,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets served by the Veterans Health Administration have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.