Guest Opinion: Forgotten heroes, a battle for veterans' rights - The South End: Perspectives

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Guest Opinion: Forgotten heroes, a battle for veterans' rights

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Posted: Friday, May 27, 2016 7:00 am

On Memorial Day, we honor the countless Americans who have served in the armed forces. There were roughly 658,000 veterans in Michigan last year, approximately one third of whom live in Metro Detroit.

The physical risks of serving in the armed forces are clear. Physical training and combat can result in numerous health complications, including but not limited to arthritis, blindness, missing limbs and broken bones. In addition, these men and women suffer from physical and emotional bruises that linger long after they return home. 

Some suffer from conditions that are not as visible to the naked eye.

Approximately 20 percent of returning veterans exhibit symptoms of having a traumatic brain injury, which occurs when an external force alters brain function or pathology.

TBI can have life-altering effects on memory, sensation, emotions, language, vision, hearing, taste, behavior, balance and motor skills. Many TBI patients do not receive the appropriate level of care and emotional support they need because of the “invisible nature” of a brain injury.

Unlike a broken bone, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the debilitating symptoms that TBI patients experience or the long road to recovery.

In addition, most health care insurers do not cover cognitive rehabilitation, which is fundamental to effective brain injury treatment. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects 11 percent of veterans returning from Afghanistan and 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq.

Close to 25 percent of veterans are diagnosed with anxiety disorder or adjustment disorder, and roughly 20 percent suffer from depression or substance abuse disorder.

To make matters worse, some of these mental health conditions have compounding effects and overlapping symptoms, making it even harder to ensure that our veterans are receiving the treatment and care they need.

Side effects of PTSD and TBI often elevate feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression that many veterans experience upon their return home. If left untreated, these health complications can serve as a significant obstacle for our veterans as they work to reintegrate into civilian life, build relationships, and hold a steady job. 

For many, the burdens can be too much to bear. Between 2005 and 2011, approximately 19 percent of veterans in Michigan committed suicide. 

Two years ago, President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, providing $16.3 billion to hire doctors, open more clinics and build a program that allows veterans facing long delays or long drives to get care from private-sector doctors.

The Associated Press recently conducted an investigation into response delays in VA facilities across the nation.

While wait times were chronically long across the nation, only three VA facilities in Michigan performed worse than the national average over the six month period examined. In Michigan, response times have improved in recent years, but we need to do more to provide our veteran with comprehensive support. 

In the case of my constituent, Alan Debolt, the 31-day average wait time was too long.

Al was diagnosed with cancer after he visited the emergency room of the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor in 2014. His condition was too fragile to wait two months for the first available follow-up appointment and he passed away a mere 7 weeks after his initial diagnosis.

Alan served as a combat medic in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, and played an active role in the Dearborn community and the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 267. 

Since then, Al’s wife Debbie has dedicated herself to improving medical care for future veterans and their families.

This Father’s day, June 14, the Debolt family will begin a 60 mile walk spanning from the Vietnam Veterans Post 267 in Dearborn to the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.

I plan to accompany her on her journey to draw attention to the lack of support for veterans and their families, especially when it comes to health care.

After conversations with several of my constituents and The American Legion, I believe there are a number of things we can do to make our VA facilities more efficient and accessible.

We need to take steps to ensure that VA services are affordable and easily accessible for those living in all geographical regions, including rural areas.

It would also be beneficial to increase our focus on routine care, services that can mean significant improvements for veterans with special needs, including veterans who are homeless, suffering from TBI, mental illness, polytrauma, and injuries caused by chemical exposure.

These men and women have put their lives on the line in service of our country.

With higher than average rates of depression, suicide and unemployment, it is clear to me that saying “thank you” could never be enough to welcome our veterans home.

We need to strongly urge our local, state, and federal leaders that more needs to be done to care for our “forgotten” heroes.

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