A new focus on war's mental wounds
Seattle Times staff reporter
A surge of new money is in the pipeline to help Department of Veterans Affairs and Army hospitals and clinics treat the mental wounds of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the increased funding comes amid a surge in soldiers and veterans who may need help. About 38 percent of new veterans seeking VA care in April reported possible mental-health problems, according to testimony Friday at a U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Tacoma.
As active duty and National Guard soldiers cycle in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA and military health-care system confront a complex set of problems. Those include post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and trauma from sexual assaults and from marital discord that tears families apart.
This week, the Army reported that 2006 saw the highest rate of suicides in 26 years, with 99 soldiers taking their own lives. About a third of the suicide victims were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
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.
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.
Murray receives numerous complaints from soldiers and veterans who are frustrated in their efforts to get mental-health care or by the bureaucratic hurdles they face in seeking disability compensation for these problems.
Murray said that many had "compelling and heartbreaking" stories but were reluctant to testify at the Friday hearing.
But several veterans did testify.
Among those 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?"
At the hearing, some critics of Murray held placards at the rear of the room calling for her to vote to end funding for the war.
The critics included Joe Colgan, of Kent, whose son, Benjamin Colgan, was killed in Iraq in 2003. "If Sen. Murray wants to support our troops, then she needs to use her power to bring them home alive," he said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
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