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Benefits For Returning Vets?

When American soldiers return from Operation Iraqi Freedom, they will be considered veterans. And as veterans, thay are entitled to certain benefits and services from health care to financial assistance.

"The wounds of military conflict are not always obvious. Of course, we care for the bullet wounds and the shrapnel, but also medical conditions that may be unexplained or difficult to diagnose," notes Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi.

To receive Veterans Affairs (VA) health care benefits, most veterans must enroll. In October 2002, the Verterans Administation legislated that all military personnel who recently served in a combat zone are eligible for two years of free medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for most conditions, after discharge from active duty. It applies to VA hospital care, outpatient services and nursing home care.

"All service members who have deployed to the Gulf are eligible for V.A. Health care and if they're ill, whether it be physical or mental, the stress of battle or post traumatic stress disorder," Principi explains.

Post-traumatic-stress disorder manifests itself in many ways, he points out. Depression is one of them, and this may lead to substance abuse.

"We have psychological counselors, psychiatrists, who work with service members who experience the stress of battle. And help them cope with it," he says.

Besides medical care for the disabled in uniform, the VA also has other programs, such as an employment program, Principi says.

Others include, "the disability compensation program where we provide them with payments every month, based upon the severity of their disability. And for service members who are killed in battle, we take care of the widows and the children.

"We have an Insurance Program. All active duty service members are automatically enrolled in $250,000 insurance program that would go, of course, to their next of kin. And in addition to that, there's a monthly payment to the wife and to the children for the rest of their lives. They get free health care for the rest of their lives, educational benefits. Our nation is very, very generous. We have made mistakes in the past. We've tried to learn the lessons of the Persian Gulf one," Principi says.

One such lesson involved the Persian Gulf War Syndrome, a disease from which veterans suffered but for which no underlying medical conditions are identified.

"They have fatigue syndrome, severe muscle aches. And there's no underlying diagnosis for those symptoms," Principi explains. "So for the first time in history, we have been able to compensate veterans for these symptoms without actually knowing what the medical condition is."

The effects of chemical and biological agents and post-traumatic stress disorder on the troops are the VA's most important issues coming out of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Principi notes some veterans may not want to acknowledge that they have post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, so the VA is reaching out to those who served in combat and their families.

And on the Web, www.Va.Gov, he says, families can learn about all the benefits they are entitled to.

"All of the benefits that our department provides is on the Web, or they can call a toll-free number," Principi says. The number is 1-877-222-VETS.