Specialist Tammy K. scoots around a throng of patients, visitors and staff in the wide hallways of the VA hospital in Palo Alto. Her should length blonde hair swings as her slim figure maneuvers expertly between wheelchairs and gurneys on her way to her job in the rehabilitation unit.
She quips with patients, the picture of efficiency, vibrant and confident in her role as healer for her comrades returning from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, not that many years ago in Stockton, California, Tammy was homeless, addicted to drugs for more years than she cares to admit.
"I've been sober five years now," she admits. Her story is not unusual among some military who have returned with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She felt alone and abandoned by the military and the people she pledged to serve.
Tammy survived to tell her tale. She credits her good fortune to the commitment of the San Francisco Bay Area's military outreach programs and the positive support for veterans.
"It isn't like this in other parts of the country. I speak with vets from all over the U.S.," Tammy says.
The Homeless Veteran Struggle
Shortly after Jack came home from his tour of duty in Iraq, he struggled to adjust to civilian life. Dealing with crippling PTSD, Jack was not able to get back on his feet and could not make ends meet. He eventually lost his apartment and spent more than three years homeless. It was the Oakland VA that helped Jack get back on his feet through the Bay Area's "Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program."
Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are two and a half times as likely to commit suicide as Californians of the same age with no military service. They were twice as likely to die in a vehicle accident, and five-and-a-half times as likely to die in a motorcycle accident.
Surviving Devastating War Injuries
While active military have a higher survival rate after being wounded -- three times higher than from the Vietnam War, said Dr. Albert W. Wu, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "they are surviving with pretty devastating injuries," he said. "Consequently, there are almost 44,000 veterans with traumatic brain injury to be cared for."
Chuck Arnold, coordinator of the veterans program at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said, "Today's veteran is facing so much more than in the past -- family issues, unemployment when returning, etc."
"The veteran is trained to handle difficult situations, but families are not," Arnold said. "There needs to be more education and training for families, to include children."
Twenty Six San Francisco Bay Area VA Service Centers
Veterans like Tammy and Jack come to the Bay Area because the VA here offers a plethora of services not available in their hometowns.
For some veterans who live just 200 miles from the Bay Area the services are equally lacking. Eli PaintedCrow has complained for years about the lack of medical services available for military veterans in Merced County.
The Veterans Affairs Merced Outpatient Clinic in Merced, Calif., whose parent company is the VA Central California Health Care System in Fresno, has limited services. PaintedCrow said. "They don't have therapists in Merced, period. The VA has never bothered to look for qualified therapists to work in Merced. They also don't provide physical therapy, which I'm in need of."
Outside California, the situation is not great. A recent study finds veterans services severely lacking in Virginia. The new study released September 10, 2010, says veterans across Virginia often have trouble getting the services they need, especially adequate mental health treatment.
The Virginia Department of Veterans Services is the first VA facility to take a hard look at meeting the needs of the recently returned veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The findings came as no surprise to the state officials who commissioned it. The commission will use the research to help secure money to better serve veterans, said Catherine Wilson, executive director of the Virginia Wounded Warrior Program.
A Virginia veteran described experience his experience as being shunted from one facility to another with no comprehensive format or ability to meet his needs. "I have PTSD. I tried counseling at the Salem VA, but it was pretty bad. My issues never got resolved. Sometimes I would go for counseling and they would ask me why I was there! I never got to see the same person twice. Every time I'd go, there was a different counselor."
Researchers for the study inventoried and mapped veteran's services across Virginia to identify gaps. While they found holes statewide, the study says the problem is the worst in rural areas, especially Southwest Virginia, where many veterans have depression and PTSD.
In Corpus Christi, Texas, Abel Chapa, the office director can't handle more than one or two veterans a day. Yet, now he is getting between 50 to 75 people a week in phone calls and drop-ins and he has no resources to accommodate even a fraction of the demand.
Chapa doesn't accept appointments because he's in and out of the office. The office, in a part of the courthouse that used to be a credit union, doesn't have a waiting area and the door is kept locked. Veterans can ask a secretary for help through what used to be a teller's window.
Those factors have led to some of the complaints. .
In 2008 the state of Oregon finally commissioned a "Governor's Taskforce on Veterans Services." The report found that while the state was appropriate federal funds, the state was lacking in providing services.
The Truth Behind The ROTC Controversy
The misguided notion that San Francisco is the only city in the country whose school board voted to ban the Reserve Officer Training Corp from recruiting on school campuses is wrong.
In fact, according to a report by Congress, San Francisco is one of 3,000 school boards across the country to ban ROTC and JROTC from junior high and high school campuses.
Fifty-five colleges and universities have eliminated ROTC from their campuses as well. The reasons for these ROTC recruiting bans are often holdover anger about Vietnam and more specifically, in protest of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy still enforced by the armed forces.
Road to Recovery.
"It's been a very long road," she admits, her blue eyes filling up with tears.
"I was 19 years old and a specialist in Wiesbaden, Germany. On my way to my first post, a civilian raped me. When I got to my post, I told my commander about it. He said he was sorry but did nothing. That was it." She spent three years being traumatized by the other soldiers, never knowing when she might be attacked, harassed and picked on. Back then, with only three other women to talk to, there was no help or support for females in the military.
Six years ago, she went to a small VA clinic in Stockton to seek medical help. The staff saw a vet hooked on drugs with serious PTSD problems. They bundled her up and took her to the Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program (HVRP) in Menlo Park, a service for veterans who are homes, suffer from PTSD and substance abuse. The center treats them as well as teaches work skills and independence.
Today Tammy is the picture of skill and self-confidence, her employee identification tags swing wildly across her chest as she hurries to her next assignment, helping veterans readjust to civilian life after returning from battle abroad.
"I didn't know there was any help out there," her mouth trembling as she spoke. "I wasn't aware of the world around me. I'd probably be dead if I'd stayed in Stockton."
Her story is not isolated. The challenge is finding those hiding in the cracks of society unaware there is help available. The San Francisco Bay Area VA has launched an all-out campaign to find these homeless vets and bring them to Menlo Park. They are opening small clinics throughout the region in the hopes they can reach veterans who are isolated and unaware of the help available.
Eight hundred veterans staff the Palo Alto hospital and clinics out of the 3,200 employees. There are 26 VA facilities serving the 270,000 veterans who live in the six county San Francisco Bay Area, most also staffed by veterans. Palo Alto Veteran Affairs Hospital is one of four military-run PolyTrauma and Brain Injury Units in the United States.
A major contributor to the extensive quality of services in the Bay Area are due to the affiliations with some of the country's superior medical institutions such as the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF) and Stanford University's school of medicine.
Kerri Childress, the Communications Officer and Congressional Liaison of the Palo Alto VA Hospital, moved to the Bay Area from Washington, D.C. for her job. She likes to tell the story about the support from the community in building a home for visiting family of patients in the Palo Alto VA hospital. Called Fisher House, named after real estate developer and philanthropist Zachary Fisher, the homes were created to accommodate the families of the veterans who lived more than 50 miles away from the VA hospital. The guests stay free of charge.
"When a family travels here to be with a loved one mangled from battle, the last thing they need to be worried about is how to pay for a hotel bill. Some travel thousands of miles from their homes to get to Palo Alto."
The community was able to raise more than $1.5 million in less than one year. The Fisher House organization matched the proceeds and the facility was opened in April 2006.
There is plenty of evidence in the Bay Area to dispute the "antimilitary" accusations.
"We have a big task ahead of us with so many seriously injured soldiers coming back for these wars ," says Childress, "The San Francisco Bay Area is right on board with us and we get what we need because of them. The people here care for its military, Childress said. "Even if they are anti war, they are not anti veteran."
Geri Spieler is the author of, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who Shot at Gerald Ford. She is currently working on a new book about San Francisco Values.