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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Illinois Veteran PTSD Screening, Reintegration Program Gets Underway

From the Quad City Times:

Barely off the ground, Illinois' first-in-the-nation program to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans deal with mental health issues is drawing intense interest from legislators who would like to see the country as a whole take similar steps.

In late January, Illinois began using state money to set up mandatory screening of all returning National Guard and Reserve troops for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and also established a 24-hour hot line for veterans having trouble readjusting.

"We should be doing it nationwide, and we should be paying for it at the federal level," says Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who is exploring what aspects of the $8 million Illinois program can be implemented at the federal level. "These are ticking time bombs. We've got suicides, homicides, domestic violence."

Last week, Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., called on Congress to adopt full mandatory funding for veterans' health care - making it a legal requirement in the federal budget, like Social Security and Medicare. In so doing, Hare cited Illinois' efforts at the state level as showing the unmet needs among veterans, and as pointing the way toward the type of programs that can succeed.

Since the program was started two weeks ago, 860 veterans and family members have come forward to get help, says Jessica Woodward, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.


Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, says Illinois bears watching for what it can offer to avert "a national tragedy" in the making, with hundreds of thousands of combat veterans being inadequately diagnosed and treated for mental health problems after combat.

"Part of the cost of war should be treating our warriors," Filner says. Screening everyone as Illinois is doing avoids situations where soldiers forgo mental health checks to avoid the "stigma," he says. While mandatory screening helps in some instances, other veterans don't experience problems until much later, which is where the hot line can be key.

The story of Staff Sgt. Scott Snyder, a member of the Illinois National Guard and until last year a recruiter for the Army National Guard, suggests the gaps the Illinois program already is filling.

Snyder spent 10 years in the Army, then joined the National Guard and volunteered for Iraq. After taking part in the initial invasion of Iraq and fighting for 17 months, Snyder returned home to Moline, Ill., in July 2004 and quickly readjusted to civilian life - or so he thought.

He settled into a good job as a diesel technician with the Department of Defense and into his family role as a husband and father of three. "On the surface everything appeared pretty normal," Snyder says. "I had no idea what was in store for me."

He found out on the evening of March 24, 2007. It was a quiet night, and he and his wife were looking forward to some hot wings and a war movie. Two minutes into the movie, everything changed.

Suddenly he was back in Iraq, standing in the city of Balad with his M-16 in his right hand and, inexplicably, a croquet mallet in his left hand, watching blue and white missiles come into view and explode, one after another. He was dying, and Iraq was something "I was supposed to relive, before passing over completely to the other side." ...

Since that episode, Snyder, 40, had put his family through an ordeal with his bizarre behavior, which included one night in May when he was "running around the house trying to find my guns, of which I didn't have any at home." Police arrested him that night.

He ended up at Fort Knox for an intense 30-day evaluation program. And later, he was told he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but the term meant nothing to him. Local National Guard officials couldn't do much to help him, either, he says, adding that he felt he got caught up in "a lack of resources, red tape and bureaucracy."

"Nobody knew what to do with me," he says.

A few days ago, hoping for help, Snyder called the new hot line. The clinical psychologist with whom he spoke answered his questions in ways he could understand, he says. She walked him through his condition and then startled him by calling back a day later to continue the conversation, he adds.

Now, Snyder is in the state's program, optimistic that he has seen the worst of his condition, and regretting that he didn't get this kind of help earlier because it could have saved him "a year of red tape and grief."

Screening for traumatic brain injuries is currently available to all Illinois veterans, Woodward says, and the first demobilization events with mandatory screening for the Illinois National Guard will take place at the end of the month, with another set for March.

"We hoped that Illinois veterans, their family members and friends would use this program - and they are," she said.

For a full list of Illinois veterans resources, download a copy of the State of Illinois Veterans Benefits Guide and the Veterans Benefits Initiative Booklet [both pdf].

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