A Vermont program that reaches out to troops after they return home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will receive $3 million in the coming year. The funding was included in legislation already signed by President Bush. Another $3 million is set aside in the bill for pilot projects in other states. "This funding will enable us to do everything we can to help National Guard and Reserve members and their families receive the help they need as they readjust and transition back to life here at home," Senator Bernie Sanders said. "At a time when returning soldiers across the country are suffering from extremely high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, these funds should play a vitally needed role." A member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sanders fought for the funds for both programs.
Sanders thanked Senator Patrick Leahy for helping to preserve the funding as the legislation moved through Congress. "The men and women of the National Guard have answered every call to duty with skill and sacrifice, and they have a right to expect the equipment they need in the field and the support they and their families deserve at home," Leahy said. "In between drills after long deployments, it is important to keep in touch with returned soldiers and offer them any counseling or help they might need. I have been glad to work with Senator Sanders to secure additional funding for the Vermont Guard's program."
Sanders was joined at a press conference in his Senate office in Burlington by Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Michael D. Dubie, and Jim MacIntyre, coordinator of the Vermont National Guard Outreach Team.
It is important that Vermont expand this program so that it becomes a model for the nation, Sanders said, because:
- According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who experienced PTSD increased by 70 percent -- or by 20,000 cases -- during the last year.
- A Defense Department Task Force on Mental Health found 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of Marines report psychological concerns, such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, after returning from deployment. The Associated Press added that among members of the National Guard, the figure is much higher - 49 percent - with numbers expected to grow because of repeated deployments.
- A CBS news investigation found that in 2005 there were at least 6,256 suicides in 45 states among those who served in the armed forces. One age group stood out: veterans aged 20 through 24 who have served during the war in Iraq. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age.
- Two signature injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan are PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Some have one or the other, some have both. Many of these injuries are invisible from the outside. Symptoms include nightmares and other sleep disorders, trouble concentrating, anger, recklessness, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. From 125,000 to 150,000 U.S. troops may have suffered mild, moderate or severe brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan
- As the Disabled American Veterans reports, data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show that of the 1.5 million troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, 720,000 (48 percent) are now veterans in the civilian population. Of these, 202,000 have filed claims for VA disability benefits. The VA granted benefits in more than 90 percent of the cases processed so far, and will grant more upon appeal or presentation of additional evidence. In other words, real statistics show that one out of four veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is disabled in military service.
Congress responded by passing a funding bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs that would provide $43.1 billion in discretionary spending. This is the largest increase in veterans' benefits spending in the VA's 77-year history.
"This funding alone is not enough," Sanders said. "We could have the best services in the world for our returning veterans but if they don't know about them or can't access them then they are not serving their purpose. That is what this program in Vermont is all about. What we are trying to do here is develop a model outreach program which connects service members and their families who need assistance to programs that can provide help.
"That may mean help with general health problems, mental health counseling, marriage counseling, financial problems, services for children and substance abuse awareness and treatment," he added. "We are finding out that veterans and their families are in need of a wide variety of assistance when they get back. Some of that help can be found at the VA; National Guard Family Assistance Centers; local and state social service programs, and charitable and non-profit organizations. The outreach specialists help connect and refer these service members and their families to whatever the most appropriate help is. What we are also doing here is leveraging the resources and expertise that the various entities in our state have. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, but rather we need to connect those needing help with those that already provide it.
"We all know that service members and their families, especially those from the National Guard and Reserves, often are not aware of the services and benefits available to them or do not know how to access them. This program provides some of that education. This is also especially important for service members who live in rural areas like many parts of Vermont that may not be near an active duty base, VA facilities, or other avenues of assistance.
"This outreach also helps work around the reluctance some service members have in asking for help. By using other veterans to do the outreach, we tap into the fact that many service members are more comfortable talking to someone who shares their experiences. Additionally, certain health problems or needs for other assistance do not arise for months after our men and women in uniform return from deployment. These outreach programs, focused over a longer period of time, will allow service members to get help with the problems that surface down the road.
"So what we see here is that certain issues just are not going to come up right away. When people come back they are just happy to be home, see their family and friends. After some time passes, however, problems may boil to the surface. That is why it is very important that we have this kind of proactive outreach and follow up with these service members because they might not know what kind of help they are going to need right when they come back but after a few months the needs and the questions may be more clear."