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James R. Knickman

James R. Knickman

Posted: July 23, 2010 02:20 PM

A Soldier's Toughest Battle: Returning Home?

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There's been some debate about new federal regulations designed to make it easier for veterans to receive disability benefits and medical care for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From my point of view, eliminating some of the legwork and paperwork previously required to establish combat-related stressors leading to PTSD will help increase veterans' access to timely care and services.

Another positive development here in New York is a new bill, just passed by the State Legislature, that calls for an interagency plan to improve care and services for veterans and their family members who are coping with mental health and substance use conditions.

These are steps in the right direction, but the need for additional coordinated care and services for our veterans is urgent and growing. An estimated 90,000 servicemembers will return to New York State from their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, many with physical injuries, but many more with the invisible psychological and emotional wounds of war. According to a 2008 national study by the RAND Corporation, nearly 20% of returning veterans suffered from PTSD or depression, and 19% suffered a probable traumatic brain injury.

As these veterans reintegrate into civilian life, they and their families cope with a range of potentially debilitating social, emotional and health issues. Today, federal and state agencies and community-based groups are largely unprepared to provide these veterans with the full range of services they need. It would make sense for the Veterans Administration to reallocate some of its existing resources to support community-based services that are most approachable for many returning servicemembers. Of those veterans surveyed in the RAND study, half who sought care reported that they did not receive adequate services.

It's clear that we need to do more, and we still need to learn more about the unmet needs of servicemembers returning to New York. How can we link veterans to services they are eligible to receive through the VA? How do we connect them with community-based organizations that provide support for case management, residential services, employment training and direct mental health counseling? Where are there gaps in services and coordination? What role does military culture and persistent stigma around mental health issues play? What types of services and support do veterans' family members need?

Later this year, we will have New York-specific information from a new RAND study, modeled after the national research, on the mental, emotional and social service needs of returning veterans and their families.

What is clear today is that we all have a stake in ensuring that our veterans and their families get the services they need and that our troops are able to reintegrate successfully into their civilian lives. We owe them no less.