Even though the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that the first reports of unusually high levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among returning veterans were highlighted by the media. In the winter of 2007, the media reporting on the Walter Reed and the VA scandals began calling national attention to the plight of veterans traumatized by war. What followed was a flurry of statistics and studies relating to veteran’s behavioral health issues.
Nationally, of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that were treated by the VA: 38% had a mental health concern, 17% had a substance abuse issue, and11% suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury.
Recent media reports indicate that 18 veterans a day nationwide commit suicide; and the national Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline, based in Canandaigua, NY fields between 130 – 140 calls per day.
Someone that I looked up to when I was in the military, Colonel Ted Westhusing, lost his life to suicide. Colonel Westhusing had graduated 3rd in his class at West Point, where he was the Honor Captain. The Honor Captain is in charge of the cadet honor code that says that, “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” He was Airborne and Ranger qualified. He was a man of deep faith.
In the summer of 2005, I was driving home from work when I heard on the car radio that Colonel Westhusing died in Iraq of “non-combat related causes.” While I was sad, my assumption was that he might have died during a vehicle accident or from an illness. I was stunned to read a media report in the spring of 2007 that his death was by suicide. The report indicated that Colonel Westhusing had been placed in charge of security in Iraq, where he uncovered scandal among both American civilian contractors and Iraqi security forces.
His wife reported that his e-mails home became depressed, as he couldn’t justify in his mind the values he learned at West Point, with what he saw going around him. Fellow officers indicated that he became obsessed with his pistol; he ultimately took his life with that pistol, after writing a suicide note. He only had about a month left to go in Iraq.
In the wake of this nationwide crisis involving the care of veterans, the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island was formed in November of 2007.
The Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, a project of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, is a collaborative effort of over 60 mental health and substance abuse providers, county and state mental health and substance abuse oversight bodies, the VA, county Veteran Service Agencies, VET Centers, veterans organizations, elected officials, and local universities. The mission of the Alliance is to: “Promote the health and well-being of Long Island veterans and their families through advocacy and a broad array of services.”
Veterans issues are critical on Long Island. Of the 1,000,000 veterans who live in New York State, over 174,000 live on Long Island. In fact, Long Island is second only to San Diego in the percentage of veterans among its citizens.
The Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island supports veterans and their families through three workgroups.
Outreach: Veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan in the earlier days of the war report that the military did a poor job in preparing them emotionally for the transition back to civilian life. As a result, some veterans began experiencing issues with anger, depression and substance abuse. Some lost their jobs and their marriages, some got into trouble with the law, others committed suicide. These tragedies might have been averted had the veteran been made aware of what services were available.
In response, the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, in partnership with NYS Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, and the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency produced a brochure that explained PTSD and where veterans could go for assistance. This brochure was mailed to over 3,100 veterans who returned home to Nassau County since 9/11/01.
The Veterans Health Alliance continues to look for new ways to reach out to veterans and will seek to make better use of the internet to offer veterans the chance to obtain resources and information in an anonymous fashion.
Program and Training: The Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island has partnered with the OMH and OASAS Long Island Field offices to conduct training for providers and other stakeholders. The training gives providers, who may not be familiar with the military, an overview of the military “culture.” The training also educates providers in new techniques to aid recovery from combat related PTSD, including the US Army “Battlemind” concept.
“Battlemind” points out to the veteran that the military trains people to be aggressive, to carry weapons at all times, to give and take orders, to be secretive, and to drive fast. While these are all strengths in a combat environment, these behaviors can be problematic if not adjusted for civilian life. Battlemind helps soldiers build on their strengths in order to make a smoother transition.
In addition to Battlemind, Veterans and their families are taught that a traumatic experience of combat produces chemical changes in the brain, and that this is a “normal” reaction. Veterans and their families are also instilled with the hope and belief that PTSD is curable.
Advocacy: Members of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island have met with elected officials on the county, state, and federal levels in order to advocate for improved behavioral health and support services for veterans and their family members.
In conclusion, the vision of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island is: “You Served Your Country, Now Let Your Community Serve You.” Working together, community providers, government agencies, and elected officials can help our veterans combat the effects of trauma and depression and achieve peace of mind.
Mr. Javis is Chairman of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island.