VA Palo Alto Health Care System
VAPAHCS Welcomes Marines With Open Arms
April 21, 2012 - San Jose Mercury News: When Marines leave the Corps, they are encouraged to enroll with the Department of Veterans Affairs. But many don't. The VA and Department of Defense are two distinct, sprawling federal bureaucracies -- with their own staffs, cultures and record-keeping. No system exists to automatically enroll members of the military in the VA once they leave active duty, which means that scores of military veterans aren't accessing the services they need and are entitled to.
On Saturday, nearly 800 Marines spent the day at the VA's Palo Alto Health Care System as part of an effort to welcome Marines with open arms -- and get them in the door. The daylong event, which featured health screenings, dozens of community organizations and a family-friendly barbecue, was organized for Marines who live within a 150-mile radius of the Palo Alto facility. The Marine Corps paid the Marines a day's wages -- about $210 -- for attending.
"A lot of Marines don't realize the benefits of the VA," said Lt. Col. Alex Waugh, who helped organize the event. "When guys are leaving active duty, the focus is on getting out and what are they going to do next. It's a real challenge to get them enrolled."
Marines typically enlist for six years -- four years of active duty followed by two years of "inactive ready reserve." The vast majority of the Marines who attended Saturday's event are on inactive reserve, and many have recently returned from tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While Vietnam was largely fought in rural jungles and on foot, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marked by roadside bombs known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Bomb blasts often lead to traumatic brain injury.
The VA's Palo Alto facility is the largest VA hospital in Northern California, consisting of three inpatient facilities in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Livermore and seven outpatient clinics from Monterey to San Jose to Sonora. The facility is home to several state-of-the-art treatment centers, including a Spinal Cord Injury Center, a Traumatic Brain Injury Center, a Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program and the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services since 2007. Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it would increase its staff of mental health workers by roughly 1,900 to better meet the needs of returning veterans. But
"Right now people don't understand that veterans have to come to us," said Kerri Childress, director of communications for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
"We can't make them come to us."
On Saturday, the first Marines, including many who had driven from the Central Valley, started arriving at 6:30 a.m. By 10 a.m., more than 300 had been enrolled in the VA health care system.
Ian Tong, the medical director for veterans outreach, saw about 10 veteran Marines on Saturday.
"About half of the Marines that I saw today have PTSD," Tong said. "I talked to one man whose father had videotaped him having an episode."
PTSD is often associated with combat veterans, but the disorder can affect anyone who has experienced trauma, from rape and sexual assault to a car crash, fire or horrific event such as the Sept. 11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina.
Mental health experts say most trauma survivors slowly return to normal over time. But some sufferers constantly relive the horror of their experience, with symptoms so severe it's difficult to interact socially, maintain relationships or hang onto a job.
Seeking help, though, isn't always easy. While soldiers who lose limbs don't think twice about getting fit for prosthetics, many see a stigma in reaching out for mental-health treatment. Others downplay or lie about their mental trauma when their units are about to return home because they are eager to see their families and don't want their homecoming delayed by a medical or psychiatric hold.
Tyson Pickard, 25, served in Afghanistan and now lives in Merced. An IED hit the truck he was in, so he's currently getting disability from the VA for traumatic brain injury. He usually goes to an outpatient center in Merced, but says the VA hospitals are far better.
"When you get to an actual VA hospital, the sky's the limit," Pickard said. "They'll help you get what you need. A lot of people are stubborn and don't want to ask for help, but all you have to do is ask. I'm a satisfied customer."