An innovative Vermont outreach program for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is the model for a $30-million national pilot project that Senator Bernie Sanders will ask the Senate to approve when it resumes work this week on a defense authorization bill. "My hope is that increased coordination between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and local and state organizations will mean that veterans and their families will be better informed and more likely to get the care they deserve,' Sanders said.
Sanders last year secured $1 million for the Vermont National Guard working with the White River Junction VA Medical Center to visit the homes of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The outreach workers, all veterans themselves, make certain that service members and their families know about available benefits, including mental health care and support programs under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The outreach workers also provide referral services.
"We're very appreciative of the congressional efforts to bring this ground-breaking program to Vermont," Adjutant General Michael Dubie said. "The outreach program has already helped a number of returning soldiers, airman and their families and we look forward to the continuance of this worthwhile initiative in the future."
"The National Guard and the White River Junction VA Medical Center continue their close working relationship to insure that Vermonters who have served in uniform and their families receive competent, coordinated and timely services they are entitled by virtue of their selfless service to our nation," said Gary M. DeGasta, the center director.
Sanders later this week will offer an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would provide $30 million for a national pilot project expanding the Vermont program to other parts of the country.
The Defense Department would be authorized to support outreach programs that support marriage counseling, services for children, suicide prevention, substance abuse awareness and treatment, mental health care, financial counseling, domestic violence awareness and prevention, and employment assistance and other services. The outreach programs also would develop strategies for families to learn how to live with a service member coping with post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Sanders' legislation also would put a special emphasis on face-to-face outreach to veterans and their families who live in rural areas, one of the unique aspects of the Vermont program.
A member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sanders has worked in Congress to increase resources for veterans. "If anybody thinks that we have had the resources to adequately support the veterans who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, plus all of our older veterans, they sorely misunderstand the situation," Sanders said. "I intend to do everything that I can to make sure that the Bush administration, instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, starts adequately funding the V.A. so we don't continue to have the disgraceful situation that we currently do. We need more innovative programs like this one in Vermont that bring resources together to help our veterans.
"If we go to war, what we have to understand is that the cost of war does not stop the day that the war ends," Sanders concluded. "The cost of war stops when every service member or veteran gets all the help that they and their families deserve as a result of their service to this country."
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