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Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Personal Call to Keep Pushing for Our Veterans

Have you noticed?

The winds have picked up, the ground is shifting. And the sands of time are increasingly falling in our favor. Maybe it was the reporting of the Washington Post, or perhaps the Hartford Courant. Or could it have been NPR that had a hand in it, or was it that much-loved political cartoonist, Garry Trudeau?

ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff surely played a crucial role. So did one father, and a Navy psychologist. Certainly tireless veterans like Paul Rieckhoff and Steve Robinson and countless others can take a lot of credit for it. Military families who have borne the ultimate price like the Omvigs and the Luceys can, too.

Editorial boards from the Kansas City Star to the Yakima Herald-Republic and many others can be credited. But so can hard-working and well-meaning VA and DoD personnel of every rank and station who are desperatly trying to fix a system that they know needs fixing. The GAO has done an admirable job, as have the researchers at Walter Reed.

And, thankfully, our elected leaders in the House and the Senate have at long last begun answering our call, gaining courage (and political cover) from us on the outside and inside pushing for and demanding real change this time.

This progress is not due to the effort of any one person or group, but rather of the combined energy of many. So many working together to fix the mammoth problems that have existed in a post-combat healthcare system that we all realize does not honor the work and sacrifices of anyone involved: veteran, military family member, or government employee.

We have a long, long way to go, yes.

Frankly, we're never going to resolve all of the problems that our returning troops have to deal with when they begin to wind their way through the military and VA healthcare system. But we are well on our way to correcting not only the small things that make their experience trying, but a few of the larger difficulties as well. Of course there are scores of news reports than can disprove my optimism. But we are within range, my friends.

Some great things are happening, making it all that much more important that we keep pushing.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for a few positive moves forward...

Here's one individual leading by example:

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Charlie Brown will be presenting financial contributions to a number of local veterans support organizations at an event scheduled for Monday, April 16th at the Roseville Veterans Memorial Hall.

The event comes just days after Brown's son deployed for his fourth rotation to Iraq, and in the wake of growing concerns about the wide spectrum of post-combat aftercare needs confronting veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "We've all heard the troubling trends concerning PTSD, homelessness, suicide, divorce, and the myriad of other challenges that have faced past and current generations of veterans," Brown said. "Many people may not be aware of the vital role that local groups play in delivering services to those in need, and how much they count on the support of private donors and volunteers."

"This event is about highlighting their work, their needs, and what others can do to help," Brown added. It's about the shared obligation of people of all stripes-politicians, businesses, and individuals--to come together, put their money where their mouth is on troop support, and address a common challenge that will be with all of us for decades to come---no veteran left behind."

Another charity extending itself to help our vets:

There’s a celebration today on the South Side [of Chicago] as a residence for homeless military veterans is dedicated in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. Catholic Charities built St. Leo Residence at 77th and Emerald. It serves 141 veterans....133 men, eight women. Nate Gilham, the director of veterans services for Catholic Charities says, “the goal of the program is self-sufficiency....moving vets from state of homelessness”.

It does that by offering drug and alcohol counseling, support groups, help in lining up jobs as well as eventually finding their own housing. Catholic Charities team leader Misty Brown says, “This is a way for them to get grounded, get more independent...(and) is a starting point for them”. ...

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a long-time advocate for military veterans has praise for St. Leo’s Residence. “It’s our duty to take good care of those who’ve borne the battle. For homeless veterans we’ve got to pull out all the stops”. ...

The Veterans Administration estimates that, on any given night, there are more than 300-thousand homeless veterans in the United States and that nearly half of them are from the Vietnam Era. Many have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, have health and substance abuse problems and are out of work.

States are getting involved, too. Indiana, for one:

Indiana soldiers, veterans and their families are getting a boost from state lawmakers, who've set aside partisan wrangling over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to help those serving the nation. Bills have advanced that would give new tax breaks to active-duty soldiers, members of the Indiana National Guard and reservists; provide money to help military families struggling because a member has been mobilized; and allow parents, spouses and siblings of Guard members and reservists who are being deployed to take some unpaid leave from their jobs to be with their families.

"Of all the stuff we are doing right now, I'd rather see us pass something to help the kids who are busting their butts for us over there," said Republican Sen. Thomas Wyss of Fort Wayne, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs.

It is not yet clear how many bills to benefit soldiers will pass, or in what form, but Gov. Mitch Daniels recently expressed optimism that several would reach his desk with bipartisan support. "I'm looking forward to signing them," said Daniels, who proposed a package of benefits for soldiers and veterans before the session. Many are in a bill that passed the Senate and House, although differences in the versions must be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee.

One bill already bears his signature.

That new law, which takes effect July 1, will give National Guard members returning from active duty priority for placement in employment and training programs provided by the state. Spouses of Guard members also are eligible. "We want to make sure that the transition back into our work force is as easy as possible," said Sen. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, the bill's author.

Minnesota, too:

A [Minnesota state] Senate panel on Tuesday approved a proposal to spend $1 million to test more than 800 veterans for exposure to depleted uranium, which the U.S. military has used to harden shells and other munitions for piercing armor.

The legislation puts Minnesota at the forefront of a gradual movement by states -- whose National Guard members and reservists have contributed heavily to the wars -- to improve testing for uranium and determine its long-term consequences.

While critics say proponents have failed to make a convincing case for more testing, advocates liken their campaign to early efforts to learn about the effects of defoliants on soldiers in Vietnam. "Exposure to depleted uranium may well be the Agent Orange of the Iraqi wars," David Francis, a retired Navy officer who served on nuclear submarines, told the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Veterans. "When we send our men and women into war ... we have a sacred obligation to provide the best possible health care for them when they come home."

The state House is advancing a similar proposal to fund sophisticated testing of veterans who feel they are suffering health problems resulting from exposure to depleted uranium.

And veterans groups and educational institutions are finding creative ways to support returning troops:

With backing from key state legislators, a veterans group and a community college in Central Massachusetts plan to build what is believed to be the country's first residential treatment and education facility for injured veterans and their families. The center would be on 10 acres of land donated by Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner and provide 20 two-bedroom cottages, where veterans from across the country could recover in the company of their families for up to two years, according to planners.

Many of the veterans are expected to have traumatic brain injuries caused by roadside bombs and firefights in Iraq, as well as burns, amputations, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. The veterans could attend classes at government expense at the community college and use its swimming pool and track. The college, in turn, would provide students in physical and occupational therapy to help in the veterans' rehabilitation.

"This is a win-win for everybody," said Leslie Lightfoot, a former Army medic and founder of the Veterans Hospice Homestead in Fitchburg, which is spearheading the project. The group is seeking to raise about one-third of the estimated $5 million needed to open the Northeast Veterans Trauma Rehabilitation Center and expects the remainder to come from the state and federal governments.

Daniel M. Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College, said he supports the project and expects the college's trustees to endorse the plan this spring. "Whether you believe in the war or not, they're sacrificing life and limb," Asquino said. ". . . Those individuals need a compassionate place to recover and get their life back in order."

Nonprofit advocacy groups are also working to offer support to returning troops -- and even the individuals advocating for them. And I have first-hand experience in this area.

My publisher and I had not yet been able to arrange a Seattle stop for the Moving a Nation to Care book tour, when one day I received a really kind letter from a member of a local combat PTSD advocacy group (the group is connected to Dr. Edward Tick's Soldier's Heart organization; Tick is the author of what I believe to be one of the best volumes on the matter, War and the Soul).

The writer asked if I was planning a visit out their way. I replied saying that we hadn't arranged a venue yet.

She and her group sprang into action, lobbied University Bookstore, and I now have a Seattle, WA stop on the calendar for July 12, 2007. But this kind new friend and ally threw her support in my direction in another way, too. She wrote the following letter to the Seattle Times and shared it with me:

I just read about this book when I ran across the author’s blog:
“Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops,” by Ilona Meagher

I’m a member of a small grass-roots nonprofit in Seattle called Soldier’s Heart Seattle. Our purpose is to raise consciousness (that favorite ‘60s phrase!) about post-traumatic stress disorder and try to provide a safe homecoming for our Iraq and Afghanistan vets and their families. To that end, we’re putting together a “care package” for returning vets with info and support on PSTD issues.

I haven’t read Ms. Meagher’s book (due out in May) but if it’s as thorough and well-written as her Web site then it ought to be good. Also, Dr. Edward Tick wrote a very positive blurb for it. Ed, a psychotherapist in Albany, NY, and author of “War and the Soul,” is the one who inspired our group with the healing work he’s done with Vietnam, gulf war, and Iraq vets. Getting medical care and understanding for PTSD is a huge issue for combat vets, as you may be aware. (I was also intrigued that the author is a former flight attendant who decided to take on this issue as her work after 9/11.)

Bottom line: it would be great if Ms. Meagher’s book could be reviewed in the Times. She appears to have done a phenomenal amount of research on this issue and maintains the blog/Web site for vets and the public. One thing our group has learned is how many, many people want to do something to “support the troops” beyond a bumper magnet, but they don’t know where to turn. A book like this can broaden the public discussion considerably at this time and inspire more efforts on behalf of vets with PTSD.

Thank you for your consideration.

I could continue on with many other examples of people reaching out to move the issue of taking better care of our troops forward.

I thank those like Ramona above who have personally helped me, and more importantly have the greatest appreciation for everyone working in big and small ways to ensure our vets know we've got their backs -- just as they have had ours.

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