July 1, 2008 – State lawmakers will convene the first of a series of meetings today to consider how to improve mental health services and programs for thousands of veterans returning to Massachusetts from Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘We want to know what we can do to augment federal services.’
WHAT MASS. CAN DO
The committee will review how the state can supplement federal assistance for the more than 29,000 veterans in the state who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001.
The 19-member Hidden Wounds of War Commission will explore whether to establish mandatory mental health treatment programs for National Guard members, a state military family leave policy for caregivers of returning veterans, and a statewide training program to assist police, correction officers, and other officials in recognizing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The federal government has not provided adequate services, and we want to know what we can do as a Commonwealth to be helpful,” said state Senator Stephen M. Brewer, the commission’s cochairman. “There are heart-wrenching stories that need action. Unfortunately, in our society there remains a stigma to mental health issues. Veterans may be reluctant to come forward. We want to see that they get the help they need.”
Lawmakers said they have modeled the committee after a similar commission formed in 1981 to address the needs of Vietnam War veterans. They pointed to a report by the US Department of Veterans Affairs that found that 25 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have mental health problems and that many never get help.
“The intent of this commission is to do an in-depth study of PTSD and traumatic brain injury, to get really in-depth on the impacts, the numbers, and the systems in place or not in place,” said Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, a commission member. “We know there are some gaps in the federal system. We want to know what we can do to augment federal services.”
The commission, which will issue its recommendations by Sept. 15, also includes the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, the commissioner of probation, and five members appointed by the governor, including representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Massachusetts Veterans’ Service Officers Association, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
Tom Kelley, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Services, said that at least 5,000 members of the National Guard from New England have received mental health screening since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that about 63 percent of those soldiers have received follow-up services.
“The value of this is to recognize that when people come home from war they are different from when they left,” Kelley said. “It’s impossible to come home without some sort of stress in your life. . . . We need to recognize that stress early on, so that it doesn’t become a mental health disorder.”