Monday, July 18, 2011

Waco VA Hospital ready for returning Iraq war vets

Waco - An attractive blonde with an honorable discharge from the Air Force, she is now in charge of helping homeless veterans find a place to live.

She stood up in front of a crowd more than a hundred health and social work professionals at a seminar here, and said, “I heard of a couple of Marines living in a car. That kind of sets off alarms in my head. Something about that just isn't right.”

Soon, there will be hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of these warriors – many of whom have been deployed to the battle zone at government expense as often as 5 times under the military's stop loss program – returning to civilian life later this year.

Many more are constantly on the brink of homelessness, she explains. They and their families are often just a paycheck away from the streets and the homeless shelters.

“It's a very fragile situation,” she concludes.

Her office is in one of the stately old red brick buildings scattered around an oval quadrangle on this leafy psychiatric campus erected in the thirties in anticipation of the second world war.

The federal bureaucracy had the facility slated for closure during the Bush Administration, but VA health care specialists such as Maggie McCarthy, Waco's Mayor, then U.S. Representative Chet Edwards, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Veterans Affairs and Military Construction, and a host of commanders of veterans service organizations such as the VFW, American Legion and DAV came together and pulled in every political favor they had.

The facility not only remained open, it's going through a major multimillion dollar renovation complete with asbestos abatement, remodeling, plumbing, electrical and heating and air conditioning rebuild to national codes.

The formal entrances to the buildings are emblazoned with banners that read “Future Home of Women's Health Services” and “Blind Veterans Care Center.”

This will be the major center for veterans returning to civilian life who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The problem is alarming, to say the least. Unemployment among veterans is at least twice that in the civilian population; soldier on soldier and soldier on family violence far outstrips that of anything in the civilian world; substance abuse among returning warriors is rampant.

It's the little things, according to Ms. McCarthy.

For instance, in the civilian world, social convention dictates that a motorist should stop immediately when ordered to do so by a police officer.

But to the crewcut veterans of multiple tours of combat duty in Iraq, to do so is anathematic to their survival. It's a signal you should pour on the coal and hold firearms at the ready.

Never forget the fate of Private Jessica Lynch, who was captured in May of 2003 when her convoy got lost, stopped when ordered to, and was subsequently rescued by American commandos during the height of the bombing of Baghdad.

“On the battlefield of Iraq, the last thing you want to do is stop,” Ms. McCarthy explains. After all, most Iraqi policemen are in law enforcement for the baksheesh – the bite – all the cash they can collect from black marketers and smugglers. Many of them are insurgents masquerading as police.

Another social worker stands to tell the seminar about demobilization lectures she gives women veterans returning to civilian life at nearby Ft. Hood in Killeen.

“When you ask if they do the same work as the males, they all raise their hands and agree that they do,” she explains. “But when you ask them if they are veterans, they don't see it that way. They don't raise their hands. They don't know they are veterans.”

It takes a counselor to go around the explain that they actually have VA benefits coming to them because they served in a war zone.

The room is silent, nonplussed by this nonsequitur, the notion that women about to be honorably discharged from active duty in the Armed Forces don't know they are veterans. It all sounds so strange in the civilized and air conditioned comfort of a carpeted meeting room with subdued indirect lighting and comfortable seating.

One wonders.

Another attractive lady, this one a brunette with one of those impeccable tans and ultra-white teeth in a pretty face, explains that the Waco Transit Authority has classes in how to use the public bus to get around. The city's entire fleet is equipped for wheel chairs and bicycles.

Veterans can buy a pass for a dollar a day.

An executive from the V.A. Regional Center grimaces, leans toward the writer, says, "Most of the guys couldn't afford even that."

"Think about what you would do if you didn't have a car, had no way to get around," she says. "No gift is too small." People are encouraged to buy the bus pass cards, put them on deposit for vets who need them to get to medical appointments, job interviews, the grocery store.

A Mr. Hernandez, the county veterans service officer, whose position is funded by the Texas Veterans Commission, breaks down the contribution to the local economy made the the medical center and the downtown V.A. Regional Office, a counterpart to the state's other office at Houston, the two of which process the disability compensation and pension claims of veterans.

Health care, he explains contributes $75 million yearly to the local economy. The regional office payroll is $52 million. Veterans who receive compensation and pension benefits contribute $85 million to the greater McLennan County economy. Nearlly a thousand jobs are on the line on a daily basis – good paying federal jobs with full benefits, retirement, vacation and health plans. The area's 19,000 pensioned veterans contribute $225 million to local tills and bank accounts.

The media is very cooperative, but Maggie McCarthy is looking at the horizon.

"I have this fantasy that we can get the social media involved. I'd like to see us on every social activists' phone."

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