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Monday, June 19, 2006

Centers Offer Vets Superior Health Care and Resources

Newly returned OEF/OIF veterans interested in having a full health assessment have an incredible resource to tap into: the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Centers (WRIISC) located in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Receive a free "1 day individualized and comprehensive medical assessment of your health, with a focus on health issues related to deployment." The comprehensive check-up is available to all OEF/OIF veterans no matter where they live. Lots of details to share with you on this.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

Before we get to the specifics on the assessment, here's what today's Morris County/New Jersy Daily Record has to say about the WRIISC assessment program:

Mark Hechinger, a New Jersey Army National Guardsman since 1972, was 50 when he deployed to Shuaiba, Kuwait, in October 2004. For six weeks he unloaded equipment at the Seaport of Debarkation in an industrial area surrounded by fumes from oil refineries. The following January he took part in Task Force Liberty while stationed in Tikrit as part of Alpha Company, 50th Main Support Battalion, 42nd Rainbow Division.

By the time the chief warrant officer returned home to Hawthorne, he had been through a lot. Then he learned about the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center, specifically for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, at the East Orange campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System. "I had a very thorough exam physically and mentally there and, when it was completed, I walked out with a binder two inches thick with general information and even more specific just to me," he said. "Everything was handled privately and professionally."

Hechinger said the staff carefully listened to his concerns about being exposed to dangerous environments while he was deployed, and that he was pleased to learn the VA is keeping a database on his experiences and those of others. When he walked out of the clinic he felt the country had learned lessons from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

While other U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs centers across the country offer healthcare and education services, what sets the WRIISCs apart is their focus on research.

What's different in New Jersey is the research component. The war center in East Orange invites, but does not pressure, veterans to participate in studies.

Its most sought-after service, though, is the specialized environmental exposure clinic, according to Dr. Ronald Teichman, associate director of clinical, education and risk communications services at the war center. Most soldiers make a beeline to this clinic, which also serves as a second-opinion referral center for veterans being treated at VA centers in other states, according to Dr. Han Kang, director of environmental epidemiology for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Six out of 10 veterans who come in say, 'I was near a bomb,''I was near this,''I was near that,''Do you think I should fill out an application for Depleted Uranium?'" said Michelle Stefanelli, coordinator for all New Jersey veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. "You can't imagine the magnitude of concern of these veterans coming back."

Hechinger is no exception. Those six weeks he spent in Kuwait had him edgy. "There is a lot of sulfur in the air and it stinks 24/7," he explained. "If you're deployed there more than 30 days, it's considered health-significant for monitoring purposes."

Later in his deployment, at Camp Spiker in Tikrit, the garbage was burned daily in pits 20 feet wide and 100 feet long. Chemicals from the fires permeated the air. "Whenever the wind was blowing the right way," Hechinger said, "it'd take your breath away."

While 1,194 veterans have registered for this excellent health care, the New Jersey VA hasn't stop there. Female veterans also receive the benefits of a clinic specially set up to meet their own unique needs -- something increasingly necessary as more women find themselves in the line of fire these days.

After concerns over environmental toxins comes interest in the continuing emotional well-being of our returning troops.

The second most prevalent concern of returning soldiers is their mental health, and so the overall clinical evaluation at the war center screens for depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, readjustment disorder, problems with attention span, concentration, spatial ability and memory. The war center channels those who report such problems directly into helpful programs without their having to publicly proclaim they need help with their thinking, nightmares or concentration. "There's still a huge stigma attached to raising your hand and saying, 'I've got a mental problem,'" Teichman said.

So far, records show that the 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have signed up for VA health care, unlike their counterparts in the Persian Gulf War, have well-recognized medical conditions, according to Kang, who also directs the war center based in Washington, D.C. "There is no mystery illness," Kang said. "They have either serious traumatic injury or mental health problems. Or they have such things as joint pain or back pain."

The Department of Defense is working with the VA to make a "seamless transition" from military to civilian life for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. When soldiers return home they fill out a Post Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA - pdf) questionnaire, usually on the airplane that brings them stateside. Often, the questionnaire is completed at the demobilization station at Fort Dix.

Six months later, troops are asked to fill out a Post Deployment Health Reassessment (PDHRA - pdf) questionnaire, in many cases at a reserve unit weekend, to identify any problems that have arisen later. The reassessment itself is a Department of Defense initiative.

Although all of these efforts are to be applauded and continued, many agree that it's still just not enough. Many troops are falling through the cracks.

While these innovations help, they do not reach into enough aspects of veterans' lives, according to Paul Sullivan, director of programs for Veterans for America. He believes today's veterans need the kind of comprehensive help World War II veterans received immediately.

"In contrast, we waited more than 12 years to care for our Vietnam War veterans, and five years to care for our Gulf War veterans," he said. "We cannot be slow to respond again because during the waiting periods of the past, lives were lost or ruined."

WRIISC OEF/OIF Evaluation Details


  • To establish baseline health information.
  • To identify and evaluate deployment related health concerns.
  • To assist veterans with obtaining a primary care provider in the VA Health Care System.
Who is eligible?

All OEF and OIF veterans are eligible for a full day WRIISC evaluation. Since transportation must be arranged and paid by the veteran, most veterans evaluated are from the local area. Overnight accommodations may be made for veterans driving far distances.

What does the evaluation cost?

The evaluation is free.

What does the evaluation consist of?

We provide veterans with a 1 day individualized and comprehensive medical assessment of their health, with a focus on health issues related to deployment. The evaluation consists of:

  • Review of Medical Record
  • Extensive History and Physical Examination
  • Psychological Interview
  • Neuropsychological Screening
  • Exposure Assessment
  • Fitness Testing
  • Health Education
Here's a description of these medical services.

At the end of the day, team members meet with the veteran to talk together about the outcome and plan. Within three weeks, a copy of the written report is sent to the veteran and his or her primary care provider.

Free Resource Booklet and Setting Up Your Evaluation

  • Free Field Guide to Iraqi Freedom Resources: call OIF/OEF Coordinator Michelle Stefanelli at (973) 676-1000, ext. 1727 to get your complimentary copy.
  • New Jersey: For evaluation set-up or more information, reach the clinical intake coordinator at (973) 676-1000, ext. 2500 or 1-800-248-8005. [Map & Directions]
  • Washington, D.C.: This clinic accepts appointments on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and is located on 3B East, Room 3B-203. For more information, call 1-800-722-8340, e-mail or use their online feedback form.

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