|08-15-2005, 08:55 PM||#1|
VA striving to serve new vets of Iraq, Afghanistan
VA striving to serve new vets of Iraq, Afghanistan
This is the second in a two-part look at what the Veterans Health System has to offer those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The goal of the VA is to make their transition back to civilian life as seamless as possible. The challenge lies in getting the word out to a new generation of war veterans.
Like Uncle Sam on the recruiting poster, if you are a veteran of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Karen Myers wants you.
Myers coordinates the "Seamless Transition" program for the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System. She knows that some 8,600 men and women have returned to the area after taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
She also knows that only one in eight of those veterans have enrolled for what is basically a lifetime of free health care through the Veterans Affairs system.
The former first sergeant with 21 years of Army experience would make it a requirement to sign up, if she could. Everyone should sign up, she said, whether they have a problem or not.
Yes, the VA health care system is crowded. Myers knows that.
She also knows that the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued a directive to get these latest young veterans into the pipeline for care as quickly as possible.
"The VA gave them a two-year window from their date of discharge to sign up for what is basically free health care," Myers said. "Anything that can possibly be related back to their combat time, whether it is respiratory disease because of the sand, or something else, will certainly be taken care of."
Paul Crouch, a social worker with the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center, says some 150 returning vets have been seen in Gainesville in the past year. Their most common physical complaint is joint injuries.
"They carry almost 100 pounds of gear, walking on uneven terrain, jumping off high vehicles or into foxholes," he said.
Hearing problems are also turning up frequently.
All the wounds these vets bring home are not physical.
An Army study reported last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 16 percent of all troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan experience post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression or anxiety. Most soldiers did not seek medical care for fear of being stigmatized, researchers said.
Crouch said slightly over 18 percent of the 150 Gainesville vets have had some mental health problems, the most common being acute stress disorder.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that of the 360,000 soldiers who have been discharged after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 9,600 have received a provisional diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recent surveys have shown that troops in the National Guard and reserves, who made an abrupt leap from civilian life to combat in Iraq, may be at particular risk for the disorder.
Although most returning vets don't have significant mental health problems, Crouch said they may still find themselves a little jumpy and uncomfortable in crowds.
"Crowds, traffic and broken-down vehicles in Iraq represent tremendous danger or death," he said.
Sixty percent of the men and women now serving in Iraq or Afghanistan are in the National Guard or the reserves.
Myers says that makes a difference when they come home, and she's often right there when reserve units are demobilized, standing by with information on their benefits.
"The VA is in the civilian community to help these soldiers," she said. "I just want to get that word out: We are here to catch them."
Myers says she just wants to make sure that anyone who served "boots on the ground" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia understands that they are entitled to VA benefits, but they have to take the time to enroll.
"Once that two-year window closes, you may not qualify," she warns.
Help is available here
As a psychologist at the Gainesville VA hospital, Tom Hundersmarck is standing by to help newly returned veterans make the adjustment to life at home.
"We've found that many people begin having problems within a month or two after discharge," he said. "There's a natural need to readjust to civilian life, but if they are having nightmares or flashbacks, it really is better to seek help early instead of later."
Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder may find themselves getting angry, anxious or depressed very quickly. They are also likely to shut themselves off from people.
"They want to be numb," Hundersmarck said. "That can lead to alcohol abuse. And it is very hard on marriages."
The VA offers a support group, a safe place for veterans to share common experiences and feel less alone. Individual, marital or substance abuse therapy is available. Between 20 and 25 men and women are now taking part, and some 150 have been through the program, Hundersmarck said.
When these veterans were in the service, it probably wasn't so easy to ask for help, he said.
"Now that they are home, they need to know that it is OK and there is not going to be any repercussions if they ask for help."Steps to rehabilitation
Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi is program director for the Brain Rehabilitation Research Center at Gainesville's VA Medical Center. She offers a different view of how several generations of veterans' needs must be met.
"We have a rapidly aging veteran population, so a significant focus (of the center) is on age-related disorders," Gonzalez-Rothi said. "We also have a newly expanding population with war-related injuries, because by virtue of better-designed protective gear, we are saving lives on the battlefield."
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