VA Faces Challenges Expanding Mental Health Care


Army veteran Phillip Faustman sifts through his belongings at a San Diego homeless shelter. Faustman says he attempted suicide three times in two and a half years.
Christopher Maue / KPBS

The following is a report from Steve Walsh, my colleague at the American Homefront Project, reporting on military life and veterans issues.

The Veterans Health Administration is planning to make mental health care more available to help reduce veteran suicide. But veterans advocates worry about the impact on the already strained VA health system.

A recent government study concluded that the majority of veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA mental health care.

Phillip Faustman almost became a part of that statistic. Faustman, who is gay, joined the Army in 2012 after the end of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military.

“I waited for the repeal, so I joined the Army to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

While in the military, he suffered sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Discouraged, he left the military in 2015, he said.

“When I first got out, I was alone, and no one was really helping me,” he said. “So I had my suicide attempt.”

Periodically homeless, Faustman did not turn to the VA, in part because he found the enrollment process daunting.

That’s a common problem among new veterans, only forty percent of whom receive VA mental health coverage. Many are discouraged from seeking care because of a complicated process to determine their eligibility. Veterans may have to prove, for instance, that their mental health need is connected to their service.

Without treatment, Faustman attempted suicide three times in less than three years. Continue reading

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18 Veterans Ready To Skate, Ski And Curl Their Way To Gold

USA Paralympian Jen Lee in goal. Photo courtesy: US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics flame is extinguished – but that doesn’t end the quest of U.S. athletes for gold.

Opening Friday, March 9, at the same South Korean venue, Team USA will field 74 athletes to compete in the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.

And one quarter, 18, of those athletes are veterans and active-duty military.

And, as a confessed hockey fan, I’m proud to say a third of veterans are playong on the USA sled hockey team:

Thanks to the work of Mike Molina, a VA public affairs specialist, and VAntage Point author Mei-Mei Chun-Moy, a VA intern, you can meet all 18 of the veterans on Team USA competing in the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

You can read their story in VAntage Point, the official blog of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And you also can follow the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games here.

Looking To Help Veterans Exposed To Open Burn Pits

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Sharing an update for veterans exposed to the burn pits while serving in Iraq. The  story on proposed congressional action is by my fellow journalist Howard Altman, Tampa Bay Times.

For years, tens of thousands of veterans suffering from their exposure to the burning of toxins in military trash pits across Afghanistan and Iraq sought official acknowledgement of a connection between the smoke and their health issues.

Their long march for recognition is gaining some traction.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Tarpon Springs Republican, is developing legislation requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that certain diseases arise from burn pit exposure when it makes decisions on compensating veterans. The legislation mirrors connections formally established to the defoliant Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.

Read Altman’s full update here.

Add your name to the VA Burn Pit Registry.

Learn more about proposed legislation, H.R. 1279,  that would establish a VA center of excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions relating to exposure to burn pits.

Researchers Test Resilience – War Zones To Refugee Camps

syrian refugees united nations photo

Thousands of desperate residents flood a destroyed main street January 2014 in Damascus, Syria, to meet aid workers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA was able to complete its first humanitarian food distribution in Yarmouk Camp there after almost six months of siege. (Photo courtesy of UNRWA)

The goal: find the best ways to teach psychological resilience to children, teens and adults living with stress and danger – like a Syrian refugee camp. But resiliency is equally helpful on the home front – in schools and concert halls.

I’m proud to share an article on resiliency research from another Carter Fellow, Emily Underwood, published in Science magazine.

In 2015, in the name of science, more than 800 teenage boys and girls in northern Jordan each allowed 100 strands of hair to be snipped from the crowns of their heads. Roughly half the teens were Syrian refugees, the other half Jordanians living in the area. The hair, molecular biologist Rana Dajani explained to the youngsters, would act as a biological diary. Chemicals embedded inside would document the teens’ stress levels before and after a program designed to increase psychological resilience.

It was a unique experiment. And it was one that suited Dajani, who’s based at The Hashemite University in Az-Zarqa, Jordan. Dajani looks askance at many humanitarian interventions imported from elsewhere. “I’m always skeptical of any program coming in from the outside, which says they can heal or help,” she says. Half-Syrian herself—Dajani’s mother is from Aleppo, her father from Palestine—she was also eager to study the physiological effects of conflict. So when medical anthropologist Catherine Panter-Brick, whom Dajani had met at Yale University in 2012, approached her about putting the resilience-boosting program to the test, she seized the opportunity.

The full article is available here. It shows, despite the continued bombing and chemical warfare in Syria, there are people from scientists to journalists trying to help.

Bay Pines VA Helping Military Sexual Trauma Survivors

Art therapy is one of the many recreational therapies offered to veterans at the Bay Pines VA military sexual trauma program for veterans.

The Department of Defense estimates 14,900 service members experienced some kind of sexual assault in 2016 – its most recent report. But because of the stigma – many wait decades before they get help – usually from the VA.

So it’s no surprise, the average age is 45 for women and 50 for men for veterans entering the Bay Pines VA Center for Sexual Trauma Services in St. Petersburg.

The delay seeking treatment is in part due to the increased level of power and control associated with military sexual trauma said Jessica Keith, a clinical psychologist and manager of the Bay Pines sexual trauma center.

“The perpetrators are often someone in the command line, someone with power. And power not only to ruin someone’s career, to impact their standing in the military,” Keith said. “We also have to remember these are people with weapons who are trained to use them. So, it can be terrifying when you’re sexually traumatized in the military.” Continue reading

A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

Artist, Author, Former President Bush Visits MacDill AFB

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

Former President George W. Bush painting one of 66 portraits he produced for his new book. Photo courtesy of The Bush Center.

The 43rd president appeared on the Today Show Monday to kick off his book tour and is following that with an appearance at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base in the afternoon with a book signing.

He won’t take questions from media. However, former President George W. Bush will autograph pre-purchased copies of his book at MacDill’s Surf’s Edge Club.

It’s been eight years since Bush has occupied the White House. And among his many pursuits he has picked up brush and started painting.

He has become rather prolific producing 66 portraits of military veterans for his book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. Many of the men and women are wounded physically or with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress. Bush paints their portraits and writes the story of their service.

The book’s title riffs off of the Pulitzer-winning book, Profiles in Courage, written in 1956 by former President John F. Kennedy while he was a U.S. Senator and after his distinguished career as a U.S. Naval officer during World War II. Kennedy’s book features eight profiles of men he felt showed extraordinary political courage.

Proceeds from Bush’s book will be given to his foundation, the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which supports transitioning military members offering help with employment and resources.

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