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Mon December 12, 2011
As Wars Wind Down Demand By Vets For Health Services Grow
By Paul Tuthill
Northhampton, MA – Two point two million troops have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far. As they return home the demand for veterans health services is increasing and will continue to climb for decades to come. WAMC's Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports..
Jacob Levitt is one of the more than 43 thousand soldiers wounded since the start of what's known as the " Global War on Terror" ..
Levitt, a US Army Infantry sergeant was hurt during his second tour in Iraq in 2006. He sustained what became the signature wound of the Iraq War a traumatic brain injury.
Not all the wounded have physical scars. Thomas Doherty joined the US Army when he turned 21. He did a year long tour in Iraq, where he was assigned to protect VIPs. He was based near the US Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. It was hit almost daily by barrages of rocket and mortor fire.
When Doherty returned home to Brockton Massachusetts, his family and friends told him he had changed. At first he brushed the comments aside, but then slowly began to realize they were right.
The V-A, the Department of Veterans Affairs operates a nationwide system of hospitals and health clinics that cares for millions of military veterans. Doherty and Levitt were both admitted to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment program at the V-A Medical Center in Northampton Massachusetts The 25 bed unit is one of only five in-patient Post Traumatic Stress Disorder programs in the county. The unit's staff psychologist, Scott Cornelius, foresees demand for the program growing.
According to the VA's national center for PTSD, the occurrence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans may be as high as 20 percent. Dr. Steven Kessler, acting chief of mental health at the VA hospital in Northampton says the VA is treating perhaps half of the veterans who likely need mental health care.
Since 2006, the VA has nearly doubled mental health staffing.
But that kind of access is apparently not universal in the VA network. An analysis of internal VA data by USA TODAY recently found that veterans seeking mental health therapy at nearly a third of the VA's hospitals had to what longer than 2 weeks. The paper said a study by the Government Accountability Office found the number of veterans seeking mental health care has increased by 300 thousand since 2006.
The VA has been scrambling to keep up with the growing demand for veterans health services, according to Coleman Nee, the Secretary of Veterans Services for Massachusetts.
Mathew Specht of Florence Massachusetts suffered a serious knee injury while on duty in the US Navy. The injury left him unable to work after his honorable discharge. But, he had to wait two years for knee surgery at a VA hospital, and had to travel out of state for the operation, because an orthopedic surgeon was not available locally.
An administrative reorganization of the VA healthcare system in Massachusetts, now underway, includes a partnership with the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. That should make more medical specialists available, and reduce the need for veterans to travel out of the area to receive speciality care, according to veterans service agents.
The VA has made an effort to reach out to recently returned veterans to encourage them to access the healthcare benefits their service entitles them to, according to Roger Johnson, the director of the VA Health Care System for Central and Western Massachusetts.
Johnson says Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are enrolling with the VA at much higher rates than did Vietnam era veterans.
There is a reluctance, stemming in part from what some call the "warrior culture" for today's young veterans to acknowledge problems and seek help, according to Jill Hunsicker, a social worker with the VA.
Kyle Hausman-Stokes, after five years in the Army and two tours in Iraq, produced an autobiographical short film about post-traumatic stress syndrome, which he shows on college campuses and in hospitals. He encourages veterans to take charge of their own health care.
The healthcare needs of the Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans won't peak for another 30 to 40 years. Paul Barboni, the superintendent of the Soldiers Home in Holyoke, is already thinking about the future needs.
The cost of healthcare for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans was one point 9 billion dollars last year, according to congressional testimony. Congressman Richard Neal of Massachusetts, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says the country is responsible for lifetime costs for veterans.
There has been strong bi-partisan support, up to now, in Washington for veterans programs. But, George Merrill, a service officer with the Disabled American Veterans fears it won't last.