Vets Skeptical VA Can Cope with Iraq War Wave

Sgt. Brent Bretz has had 57 operations since he lost both legs in Iraq.

Bretz, 24, is getting care at Brook Army Medical in San Antonio, and expects to be discharged soon on 100 percent disability. But he will need still more surgery and is counting on the Veterans Administration (LINK) to pay for it.

Advances in body armor and battlefield medicine mean soldiers are surviving injuries that would have killed them in past wars. Some will need lifetime care -- which means the government is facing a massive bill.

According to recent research by Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard economist Linda Bilmes (LINK TO PDF), caring for Iraq's wounded will cost the government $127 billion.

"The costs that we see today are just the very, very tip of an enormous iceberg," says Bilmes.

More than a quarter of returning Iraq veterans are filing claims for permanent service-related disabilities. And the researchers say Veterans Administration hospitals are already overwhelmed.

"We have essentially another entitlement program, like a mini-Medicare situation," Bilmes says. "We have a large amount of costs that is going on for many years, and we have the Veterans Administration, which is completely ill-equipped and under funded."

Vietnam vet Bob Muller, head of Veterans for America (LINK), says the VA did not adequately care for his generation. Without more funding, he says, the VA will fail this generation of soldiers, too.

"We as a society are gonna have to step up, recognize our tragic past with our earlier generation of vets, and not allow that to be repeated for our children," he says.

In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs has made great improvements in recent years. Its hospitals now offer some of the best medical care in the world.

Last October, Sgt. Lee Jones was injured in an IED explosion in Iraq. Forty-five percent of his body was burned and he could barely move.

With a team of specialists working on his injuries at the James A. Haley Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tampa, he has made enormous strides. He hopes to move back to his native North Carolina soon.

"I couldn't talk, but now I can walk and talk and normal things," he says.

But Bilmes says not everyone is getting that care, and VA hospitals fall farther behind every year in evaluating the claims of vets seeking health care.

"In 2004, the VA had a backlog of 400,000 cases. Last year it was 500,000 cases. Now the backlog is 600,000 cases," she says. "That's just in two years. And the big wave of returning Iraqi veterans has not even hit yet."

The VA strongly disputes the study, calling those numbers "misleading." The VA says only a small fraction of the veterans it cares for are from current wars. This year, more than 5.4 million veterans will receive health care at the VA, of which just over 150,000 are vets from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

In a written statement, the VA told ABC News it carefully "prepares for future costs so that it can continue to deliver the services veterans need."

Wounded veterans like Jones and Bretz are counting on that promise.