As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen worries a great deal about the systems in place for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans transitioning out of the military, he said today during a visit with health care providers and social workers at the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System here.
"One of the priorities for me is [the welfare of] the wounded coming out this war and the families of the fallen," Mullen said. "These people are so precious to us, and [the military] doesn't have contact with them any more after they're pushed back into society."
Once servicemembers separate from the military, they can register with the Veterans Affairs Department, which is responsible for helping them integrate back into society. VA assists veterans with health-care needs, entitled benefits and finding employment.
But what happens to those who don't register and suffer physical injuries? What happens to those who received physical treatment but were too embarrassed to seek mental help?
Some may get on with their lives without any issues. Others may suffer from depression, alcoholism or drug addiction. Many may have difficulties holding a job, and some end up in jail. Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries have become more and more common for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The single biggest issue Mullen has noticed during visits with wounded servicemembers at polytrauma medical centers, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., is that they want their lives back, he said. They're eager to get back to their units or shift back into society and just move on with their lives, he added.
Unfortunately, many servicemembers are so eager to separate from the military that they'll forego seeking psychiatric care for possible PTSD or TBI. For these reasons, there are significant issues with veterans struggling or becoming homeless due to undiagnosed, service-related disabilities, he said.
In the Los Angeles area, around 35,000 veterans have been treated through VA systems. However, only some veterans took it upon themselves to seek help. Many veterans were sought out in jails and on the streets here by VA social workers, said Bill Daniels, community care chief here.
The relationship and interface with between VA and the Defense Department is a challenge in itself, said Ron Norby, director for the VA Desert Pacific Healthcare Network, which provides services to more than a million veterans across southern California and Nevada.
Norby has been working with veterans and servicemembers since serving in the Vietnam War as a Navy nurse. The current military-to-civilian transition system is pretty much the same as when he was discharged, he said. Once he finished his paperwork and left his unit, that was it, he added.
But the problem with identifying mental disorders doesn't fall on the military checking up on people after separation, he said. Rather, the screening process needs to be more extensive to catch PTSD or TBI.
Norby and his staff agree that anyone discharged from the military or who has ever been in a theater of war should have a one-on-one consultation with a physician. Many suggest that everyone returning from deployment should be screened before they get back to the United States, he said.
"The faster we can catch the symptoms, the more we can help," Norby said.
During the chairman's visit here, he met with several veterans being treated for mental disorders. He expressed his gratitude for their service and let them know that taking care of them is a priority of the Defense Department.
One former Army reservist, who asked not to be identified, has been attending group sessions and speaking to psychiatrists here for a little more than a month for PTSD from combat in Iraq in 2004, he said. He's been battling alcoholism, unemployment and depression since 2005.
"The care is great, and I'm slowly getting back on my feet," the veteran said. "I didn't think talking to a shrink or group therapy would help."
The veteran said he enjoys being part of a group again, and that it's one of the things he misses most about the military.
"Everyone comes from different situations and have different needs, but we all deal with our anger or depression or alcoholism together," he said.
According to the annual consensus produced by VA homeless centers nationwide in 2007, an estimated 154,000 veterans in the United States are homeless. About 51 percent of those veterans served in the armed forces after the Vietnam War. About 45 percent indicated substance abuse and medical problems. At least 20 percent saw combat.
Mullen said the nation owes its veterans the care they need.
"We as a country have to figure out a way to have a system that is integrated and [in which] we know where everyone is," the admiral said. "We need to make sure those who've sacrificed so much are taken care of."
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