Local veterans face challenges

VA provides help to reduce trauma with free health care

By Åsa Björklund
Staff Writer

In Northern Arizona there are currently 1,723 veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more expected as military operations downsize.

The “signature injuries” of these wars are Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The latter is in large part due to the opposition’s frequent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Caused by head impacts and injuries from shrapnel and shock waves, TBI can result in memory loss, language and cognitive difficulties, impairment of judgment and behavioral disorders.

Prescott College student Troy Crawford suffered mild PTSD and moderate TBI after his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The TBI “resulted in a lot of short-term memory loss,” he stated. The Veterans Affairs Healthcare System (VA) offered him cognitive therapy, as well as a Palm Pilot and a recording device to help him remember appointments and other obligations.
While PTSD therapies have become much more effective, medical research on TBI is still relatively new. Beyond the therapy debate, veterans face a wide range of challenges in everyday life.
“It was very difficult. I felt disconnected from civilian life. In the military you always have common ground. … It was easy to start a conversation. [In civilian life] I didn’t know what to talk to people about,” said a Prescott College student who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who wished to remain anonymous. While he had no physical injuries, he experienced PTSD about a year after he came home, which led him to seek help from the VA.

Especially because of the military’s strong culture of independence, seeking mental health therapy can be challenging for former soldiers.

Markham Breen, Program Manager for the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Northern Arizona VA in Prescott, commented, “These are the tough guys and gals of the world, so reaching out for help — particularly in the area of mental health — has more stigma for this population even than for other young men, which is already a tough population.”

The symptoms of PTSD and TBI may surprise other students. The Prescott College veteran recommended people to not “take the oddities personally.”

Many veterans may benefit from the VA’s five-year program. Besides free health care, they offer a broad range of programs and services to assist veterans in the transition to civilian life. Breen assesses their needs and helps them to navigate the complexities of bureaucracy. In a poor economy, he most commonly provides help with finding jobs.

“Many of these veterans, while in service, have had high degrees of responsibility, making life and death decisions. [They have had] responsibility for a large number of personnel. And then they come back here and the best they can do is stocking shelves at Target,” said Breen.
To improve their employment opportunities, as many as 72 percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have chosen to go back to school. Not only will tuition for college or vocational training be covered, but also veterans now receive a stipend for living expenses.

Breen urges fellow students to be considerate and respectful. When in college, some veterans prefer to keep quiet about their background, because of all the questions and opinions it raises, including “Did you kill somebody?” or, “We shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” These topics can be hard to take for a veteran who has lost his five best friends in the conflict, explained Breen.

The VA offers peer support programs for veterans to help new soldiers and community groups where veterans can engage in outdoor activities to return to a normal life. Other services — not typically associated with the VA — include Tai Chi, mindfulness training, acupuncture and chiropractic treatments.
To access any of the VA services, Breen urges veterans to sign up no later than five years after coming home. During this period, they do not have to prove that they suffer from any condition.
“They can be doing well — be in school, have a job — [and] they’re eligible for this care,” said Breen.
Veterans should also take health care seriously because some problems could manifest well after homecoming.

“Five years of medical care will help us learn if there were injuries that the veteran may not be aware of,” said Breen.

Northern Arizona OEF/OIF/OND (Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraq Freedom, New Dawn, i.e. the Iraq and Afghanistan operations) veterans who want to sign up at the VA are welcome to call Markham Breen: (928) 445-4860, ext. 6308.

Prescott’s Veteran Center is located on 3180 Stillwater Drive, Suite A. Contact them at (928) 778-3469.

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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