Streamlined care could help veterans recover

At the end of his presentation Wednesday, Raymond Scurfield played a moving clip of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the field where his battalion was ambushed decades ago and breaking down in tears as he felt a link to his 21-year-old former self.

 

Thirty years from now, Scurfield said, he hopes there will not be veterans "desperate to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan because of the healing they still have to do."

A two-day meeting at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center aims to help keep that from happening. The session -- "From Front Lines to Front Lawns: Paving the Way Home for Returning and Transitioning Service Members, Veterans and their Families" -- brought together VA, military, state and veterans advocates to talk about working together more closely and forming a statewide initiative to address those problems. Augusta is getting a boost in that regard with three federal recovery coordinators added to Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center. There are only 20 in the whole country.

"That's a tremendous help and something we have been advocating for," said Laurie Ott, the executive director of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project.

Many of the seriously injured might start off at one military hospital, get transferred to another, then perhaps go to a VA and back to another military facility, said Michael McDonald, the deputy director for benefits with the Federal Recovery Coordination Program.

"And all of these transitions are difficult," he said. The service member might get a case manager at one place, then transfer and have to start up with a whole new manager, McDonald said.

"The idea of the (recovery coordinator) is to be continuous," he said, and help the patient and family follow an individualized recovery plan.

The need will likely be tremendous, said Scurfield, a professor of social work at the University of Southern Mississippi and a former director of the VA's National Center for PTSD. Studies show 15 percent to 30 percent of returning service members have significant mental health or readjustment problems, he said. Risk increases with exposure, which is particularly concerning with the number of multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Scurfield, a Vietnam veteran.

"This puts them at very high risk beyond the physical risk of their deployment," he said.

That risk could be compounded by the difficulty of the "handoff" between the Department of Defense and the VA for returning troops, Scurfield said.

"(Defense) and VA have historically had very different goals," he said. That perhaps could point to a solution in helping to better align those missions, Scurfield said.

"Could we have a mission that literally overlaps, where the missions aren't distinct?" he asked.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.