Veterans Share Concerns With Top VA Official

Burlington Free Press

June 24, 2008 – Air Guard members often do short tours of duty overseas, but still may experience the stress and brutality of war, said Cathy Cook, a retired member of the Vermont Air National Guard.

Because of their short tours, Cook said, the U.S. Air Force doesn’t give them a critical document — DD form 214 — which would recognize their service as active duty and make them eligible for the full array of veterans services.

Cook explained this problem to Dr. James Peake, new secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, during a 90-minute meeting Monday that Peake had with 150 Vermont veterans and their advocates at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Peake told Cook. He directed her to provide details to his staff.

Peake, a Vietnam veteran and a surgeon, took over the top job at the Department of Veterans Affairs six months ago. In introducing him, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., praised Peake for crisscrossing the country to listen to veterans. Sanders scheduled Peake for a full day of meetings in Vermont.

“Promises were made to veterans in our country, but these promises weren’t always kept,” Sanders said. “Taking care of veterans must be considered a cost of war.”

Sanders, who serves on the Senate’s veterans affairs committee, urged the crowd in South Burlington to speak up. “If we don’t know what the failures are, we can’t do our job.”

A World War II veteran in a garrison cap asked Peake about the practice of “tranquilizing” people to help them cope with bad memories. He said he knew all about bad memories since he’d fought in Okinawa and killed three enemy soldiers.

“For the next 17 years, I nearly drank myself to death,” he said. He asked Peake, “Are we setting people up for substance abuse by giving people tranquilizers to numb their feelings?”

Peake said the VA is working hard to find the best ways to use medication to treat post traumatic stress disorder. He said medications often are intended “to give somebody a good night’s sleep without dreams.”

Jon Turner of Burlington, who did two tours of duty in Iraq, told Peake he believed there was a tendency to over-medicate veterans. When he sought help, he said he was given six prescriptions.

Nick Palmier, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, said the military overreacts when people seek help, seeming to view everyone in counseling as potentially unstable.

He said after he saw a buddy die, he saw a mental health counselor. Subsequently, when home on leave, he had to check in daily with his sergeant. Now that he’s a civilian, he worries his mental health record could prevent him from getting jobs.

Peake agreed that “just because you need a little help doesn’t mean you have long-term problems.” He recounted how two years after his tour in Vietnam, he was walking down a corridor in medical school when a jackhammer started up. He reacted by dropping to the ground.

“You bring up the question of how do we do what is right by people,” Peake told Palmier.

Constance Quintin’s story made clear the answer to that question wasn’t simple. The Richmond woman recounted how her husband received too little service when he needed it most. He committed suicide. She said her husband served in the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Guard for more than 20 years, including war deployments.

He had lived with bipolar disease for years, she said, but developed side effects that led to medication changes. Doctors couldn’t get his disease back under control.

“He was calling almost daily with concerns about suicide,” Quintin said. In his final days, she learned later, he rehearsed hanging himself, but again sought help. He needed to be hospitalized, “but there was no bed available.”

“It was a series of ‘oops’ that led to his death,” Quintin said. “I want families not to have to go through what I went through,” she told Peake.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Peake said. His department is beefing up efforts to manage high-risk cases, he said, “but I’m afraid we will never prevent every suicide.”

Peake fielded a question about what more his department could do to help homeless veterans.

“Homelessness in veterans is down 20 percent over the past year,” Peake answered. Still, he said, “Any single veteran that is homeless is one too many.”

The Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington has applied to Peake’s department for funding to establish a transitional housing program for veterans. Ellen Kane, grants manager, said the agency was cautiously optimistic about its application for capital funding to provide 15 to 18 veterans a place to live and wrap-around case management services for up to two years. The agency expects to hear in the fall.

“Put in a good word for us,” Kevin Maloney, homeless veterans’ chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told Peake.

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