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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Hears From Vets on VA Care

From the Associated Press:

At a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, two generations of combat soldiers painted a picture of a mental health system unable to handle the stresses of a military entering its sixth year of global counterterrorism conflicts.

The hearing came a day after the Pentagon said 99 Army soldiers committed suicide last year -- the highest rate in 26 years of record-keeping and the largest total in 15 years, despite Army efforts to strengthen mental health care.

Madigan Army Medical Center psychology chief Col. Gregg Gahm, who worked on the suicide report, told Murray that unsuccessful suicide attempts likely outnumbered suicides by about seven to one. "That was astounding to me," said Murray, a senior member of the committee. "That should be the biggest alarm bell to all of us, that we are bringing men and women home from this conflict that are not getting the help and care and support they need."

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


Among the veterans testifying Friday was Brandon Jones, an Army National Guard soldier who was deployed to Iraq beginning in November 2003. When wartime stress spurred a sleep disorder, Jones said he was offered sleeping pills but no help with his underlying problem. Instead, he faced discipline when his disrupted sleep began interfering with military duties.

Other soldiers with stress problems fared worse, he said, from alcohol and drug abuse to suicide. That included a close friend of Jones who took his own life last year. "He was supposed to have been receiving help and intervention in the form of counseling and medication. He was sent home alone," an emotional Jones said. "Obviously, there were not enough resources, training, or information. Otherwise, he might be here today, instead of me telling his story," Jones said.

One more bit:

Max Lewis, director of the VA's Northwest Health Network, told Murray the veterans' testimony was "disturbing." "Despite the improvements we've made, it's quite clear the system is still failing," Lewis said.

The Seattle Times adds:

As thousands of soldiers return to Fort Lewis south of Tacoma from 15-month-long combat tours in Iraq, military and VA facilities in Puget Sound are expected to be at the forefront of dealing with the emotional fallout from these extended deployments. "It is clear that the fighting has taken a tremendous toll," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who organized the hearing. "We are facing serious challenges."

Murray has been a key figure in a congressional battle to ramp up mental-health services. Those serviceswere spread thin in the early years of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq by staffing cuts and what VA officials — in a 2004 report to Congress — said were insufficient budgets to deal with expanding demand from veterans of previous wars and new veterans.

Murray has helped fashion increases in the VA's health-care budget. An extra $100 million was targeted for mental-health care for this fiscal year. In the 2008 fiscal year, VA health-care spending will be increased by $3.6 billion.

At the hearing, VA officials from the Pacific Northwest said they have expanded mental-health program staffing by 20 percent since 2005, with 63 new positions in Washington state. The VA also is expanding services, opening a regional center in Seattle for treating traumatic brain injuries from bomb blasts. A new veterans center is scheduled to open in Everett.

Additional details on those who attended the hearing:

Those testifying at the hearing said many veterans still balk at seeking mental-health treatment, and much can be done to improve access.

Kathy Nylen, an American Legion representative in Washington state, said that in recent years funding for substance-abuse treatment has declined. She also said some veterans were disturbed by a shift from individual to group counseling.

Maj. Gen. Timothy Lowenberg, head of the Washington National Guard, said new legislation was needed to authorize the Guard — which is on wartime footing — to hire its own mental-health-care workers to treat its soldiers.

He also said medical and mental-health coverage needs to be extended for at least a year after deployments to help Guard veterans, who often struggle in the shift from combat to civilian life without the support network offered active-duty soldiers. ...

Among those [veterans who testified] was Daniel Purcell, of Spokane, who said he was bounced between the VA and the Army health-care system as he sought treatment for a wartime foot injury he suffered while he served in Iraq with the Washington National Guard. Along the way, he battled depression.

"Sadly, I, like so many of my fellow veterans, have lost faith with the business-as-usual attitude of our current system," Purcell testified. "We went to war and were changed. Why can't our bureaucracy change, too?"


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