West Virginia Lawmakers Act to Assist Returning Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans

The Times West Virginian

Fairmont, West Virginia, January 20, 2008 —  Spurred by last winter’s spate of stories about the poor living conditions and bureaucratic hassles encountered by wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, state lawmakers ordered a study at the end of the last regular session.

The select committee was told to make recommendations on how the state can assist in getting them the care they deserve, according to the joint resolution setting it up.

The experience was “an eye-opening one for us,” said Delegate Richard J. Iaquinta, D-Harrison. The chairman of the House Veterans Committee, Iaquinta was a co-chairman of the select committee with state Sen. Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia, and chairman of the Senate Military Committee.

Meeting in the spring and over the summer, the committee turned to Larry Linch, director of the state Division of Veterans Affairs and leaders of state veterans groups. Another key resource was rural health-care experts at West Virginia University. The state VA helped cut through red tape and privacy issues, providing a mailing list based on veterans who had earlier applied for a state military bonus for their overseas service.

The Legislature wants to ensure the latest group of combat veterans “get the health services and information about benefits that they may need in making the transition to civilian life,” Iaquinta said.

The survey by the Veterans Project Group at West Virginia University on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression is just one of the select committee’s products, he said.

Staying in touch with the new combat veterans and their families and relatives over the years is important, Iaquinta said.

Funding for more research and for training rural primary health caregivers on PTSD and depression is another issue.

Lawmakers will continue to work on issues like in-state treatment for veterans with traumatic brain injury from the concussion of roadside bombs, Iaquinta and Director Linch said.

The state is now ready to offer care for those with traumatic brain injury, Linch said.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said many veterans in the regular Army and Marine Corps have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So have some units of the state National Guard and Reserves, such as aviation units and other specialized units.

“They have a role over there of always being on the alert,” said Fleischauer. “They’re constantly on-guard and doing some terrific work. Then they have to shift back to normal life all of a sudden when they get back home.”

“We are just at the beginning of thinking what the results of the statewide survey means,” she said.

Getting health care to veterans and their families in rural areas is the key, committee members said.

“There are going to be continuing social and mental health needs for these veterans — and all our veterans,” said Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, and vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee.

“These are legitimate mental health issues for all veterans and their families,” she said.

“The issue for us is how we can improve outreach for these vets and all our veterans and that we follow through.”

Linch, a Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War, said the state agency wants to ensure access to treatment and services.

“We’re going to make sure these guys get treated better than Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home.”

E-mail Bill Byrd at bbyrd@timeswv.com.

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