Sunday, December 16, 2007

Iraq war veterans and all other veterans wait for help

Veterans with injuries physical and mental, struggle to adapt and get care
You can see the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in their empty shirt sleeves, the scars on their heads, in their eyes so weary from sleepless nights.They return to their homes, trying to fit in again. Most will. Too many will not.At least 25 local soldiers, four Marines and one sailor have been killed overseas since the war on terror began. Less known are the local veterans returning home with broken bodies or troubled souls.Some 30,434 men and women in uniform have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Pentagon does not say where they are from, so it’s unclear exactly how many of the wounded hail from Western New York.Almost 1,700 of those veterans have sought medical treatment at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo since 2003, with a majority seeking help for war-related injuries.

There are probably many more local veterans seeking medical treatment who are not counted in VA enrollment figures because of their status as citizen soldiers. Reservists and National Guard members often have access to private health insurance provided by from their civilian employers, according to VA officials in Washington, D.C.But for the veterans who are trying to adjust while under the care of the local VA, the navigation of a sometimes unresponsive bureaucracy adds to the pain of life beyond the combat zone.More than 600 of the 1,659 veterans treated here sought assistance for posttraumatic stress and other psychological readjustment troubles, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.“It is a full-time job working on getting whole, getting medical treatment and benefits,” said Bill Biondolillo, who served two combat tours in Iraq for a total of 14 months.“We go and do the dirty work and we have to carry that, while the rest of the country goes on with life,” said Biondolillo, a major in the Reserves.The list of injuries local veterans seek treatment for is frightening:• Exposure to Russian-made bullets with depleted uranium in the shell casings. This can cause tumors, skin ailments and respiratory problems.• Traumatic brain injuries and concussions from blasts, as well as shrapnel from explosive devices.• Damage to the neck, back and hips from carrying as much as 100 extra pounds of body armor, ammo and other equipment.• Irritable bowel syndrome and gastric illnesses caused by stress and living in unsanitary conditions.Only time will tell the full story of what veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have to contend with for their health, said Katherine Smythe of the Buffalo VA.“I don’t want to frighten people, but we had the Agent Orange with Vietnam, and I don’t know what we’ll have here. These vets are potentially being exposed to toxic material,” said Smythe, who coordinates health care services for veterans.As for Biondolillo, he suffered a back injury and also deals with posttraumatic stress. And like many returning veterans, his homecoming went largely unnoticed.Media and the public give most of their attention, understandably, to the most seriously wounded. That was the case for two Iraq veterans.Marine Cpl. Mark P. O’Brien from East Aurora lost an arm and a leg to an enemy grenade in 2004. A year later, Marine Lance Cpl. Mark Beyers, a native of Alden, also lost an arm and a leg to an improvised explosive device.The two men — who are among more than 1,000 war amputees — received hundreds of get-well cards. They benefited from several fund raisers, enjoyed welcome-home parades and a special tribute at a Sabres game.But the integration back into civilian life wasn’t seamless.“With the VA, the first eight or nine months, I went without pay. It took awhile to get everything working. . . . but after that, it has been OK,” said Beyers, who receives a disability pension.Waiting for careChristopher M. Kreiger returned from the Iraq War deaf in his right ear, but believes at least part of his hearing could be restored if the VA provided him with a better hearing device.Government rules, the Town of Tonawanda resident said, allow for new hearing aids every four years. So he’s waiting until next year to hear better.Veterans with documented hearing loss receive state-of-the art hearing devices and each case is evaluated individually on whether a new hearing aid is needed, the VA said.Eddy Delmonte, another Iraq veteran who was raised in Orchard Park, said he was on prescribed pain medication — until his prescription was abruptly canceled without explanation by a VA physician’s assistant.He said a doctor should have told him why he was taken off the medication for his back injury.Almost three years have passed since Delmonte suffered his back injury, and he said he has yet to receive treatment from a VA orthopedic surgeon. So a few weeks ago, he found a private surgeon willing to accept government health insurance.Veterans and advocates say such situations occur because the VA medical staff has not expanded to meet demands of the incoming wounded.“There’re very few doctors. I figure we were the ones who fought for freedom, and we should get the best treatment,” Delmonte said.The local VA declined to release a figure on how many doctors it has caring for veterans, saying it is hard to break out the numbers because each veteran has a team of care providers. But veterans and their advocates say the ratio could be as high as 700 veterans to one medical doctor.Harold Rybak, administrator of mental health at the Buffalo VA, and other VA officials said it also is difficult to recruit psychiatrists and other specialists to the Buffalo area — a problem echoed by other area health-care providers.“In the last eight months we’ve hired four PhD psychologists and a fifth is coming on,” Rybak said. “We’ve increased our mental health staff in the last year and a half, 35 to 40 percent. In August we started having 24- hour, seven-day-a-week mental health staffing in our emergency room.”VA officials claim that 95 percent of all of their patients are seen for routine appointments within 30 days.Returning with woundsKreiger, 35, has a long list of medical problems that, he said, are related to his 2003-04 service in Iraq with the 105th Army National Guard Military Police Company.His right leg was crushed when a Humvee he was riding in crashed. His left hip was injured when he was thrown from another Humvee during an attack.Exploding mortars and roadside bombs — including a direct hit on a Humvee on which he was the machine gunner — stole hearing from one ear.“All I remember of that attack is a flash and then blacking out. The next thing I remember is the lieutenant pulling me out. I was incoherent and had this constant ringing in my right ear, which started to bleed,” Kreiger said.He has been diagnosed with a brain injury and is being treated for that at the Buffalo VA’s Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. He suffers from memory loss, nausea, dizzy spells and seizures.Kreiger is one of thousands of returning veterans suffering from brain injuries. Since April, the VA has screened 61,285 veterans nationally and 11,804 have “screened positive” for brain injury symptoms.Two weeks ago, Army Spc. Michael D. Hauser from Cheektowaga was on patrol in Iraq when a suicide bomber blew herself up. A piece of shrapnel the size of a ball bearing crashed through Hauser’s skull and lodged in a section of his brain that surgeons can’t reach. He is now in a coma.Kreiger, in addition to his brain injury, also suffers from post-traumatic stress. Nightmares, flashbacks, road rage and homicidal feelings are all now part of his life.“You get the urge to want to kill people,” he said, adding that he attends VA-sponsored group therapy. Again, he is not alone.The Army estimates post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems could affect as many as 30 percent of combat veterans. The VA said as many as one third of combat veterans seeking care may suffer from psychological problems.An estimated 1.5 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with half now discharged. Of those who have left the military, 260,000 receive VA services.Two years after Kreiger returned home, doctors thought he suffered a stroke because of numbness in his body. It turned out he had tumors on his spinal cord.“The doctors said the tumors were connected to my combat duty. Theygot most of them,” said Kreiger, who is on 10 different types of medication. “I live on painkillers.”Distrusts governmentLooking at a stack of unpaid medical bills on his kitchen table, Kreiger said he has tried to take control of his life since returning from war — but he finds the VA system is his new enemy.Married and the father of two young boys, Kreiger said he has had to wage a battle for VA disability benefits even though his medical conditions have left him unable to work.The former ambulance emergency medical technician drained his bank account, sank into $40,000 of debt and ultimately lost his house on Spruce Street in North Tonawanda.Twice his family moved into different apartments before Kreiger was granted monthly disability checks and was able to buy a house in Tonawanda. He is now fighting for medical insurance for his wife and children.“Once you hit 100 percent disability, you’re supposed to get medical insurance for the family, and they’ve been denying me,” he said. “They say I’m not totally and permanently disabled, but they are giving me 100 percent disability, so how is it I’m not totally and permanently disabled?”Kreiger said he is yet to get an answer to his question and is working his way through government bureaucracy.“I love my country, but I don’t trust my government,” he said, as his two boys — Cole, 4, and CJ, 6 — ran into the kitchen looking for a snack.That stack of medical bills, totaling about $2,000, remained on the table as he served them pop and cookies.VA officials say they are trying to speed up the process for settling disability claims and paying bills that veterans sometimes incur when they receive medical treatment outside the government system.Army veteran Eddy Delmonte, who now lives in Hamburg, suffered the same sort of injuries that Kreiger did.Delmonte was 18 when he arrived in Iraq in 2005 as part of the Army’s 2nd Brigade of the 211th Armored Cavalry Regiment.He survived rocket-propelled grenades screeching over his tent, numerous roadside bombs and several firefights. Sixteen members of his brigade did not survive.Delmonte was injured when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle he was in crashed. He was left with fractured vertebrae, a head injury that causes migraine headaches, vertigo, memory loss and a high-pitched ringing in his left ear.On top of it all, his mind is in such turmoil that sometimes he can’t get out of bed in the morning.Erica Delmonte said it is not easy to live with her husband. Eddy Delmonte said it is not easy to live with himself.“Just thinking about what happened to friends you lost, thinking about friends who got arms blown off from massive shrapnel, and you go into a daze,” he said. “One night in bed I woke and had my wife in a headlock. She said, ‘What are you doing? It’s me, babe.’ ”Delmonte was a patient of the VA’s post-traumatic stress facility in Batavia but left, he said, when he was threatened with being sent to jail because he was upset he was not given a new pain medication for his injured back.“They said if I flipped out, they would throw me in jail. So I left,” Delmonte said.Despite Delmonte’s experience, more than 400 veterans — most of them from Western New York — have been treated in the Batavia facility over the last several years.The numbers started as a trickle in 2003 with only four Iraq War veterans and have increased steadily ever since. In fact, the number of available beds for men was recently doubled to 30, and a separate post-traumatic unit was opened for women veterans.Dr. Terri Julian, the director of the post-traumatic unit in Batavia, is not without sympathy for veterans like Delmonte.“Our military is so well trained and has great strength. So sometimes our veterans lose track of their personal strength because of their emotional pain,” Julian said. “When there’s trauma and depression, we just lose that connection with our strength.”One thing Delmonte won’t lose, though, is his connection with the friends he lost in Iraq.On Delmonte’s right forearm is a tattoo that screams for attention: a military rifle, its barrel pitched into the earth beside a pair of empty combat boots, an empty helmet atop the rifle’s buttstock.The names of two fallen battle buddies frame the body art.Hard to concentrateBefore Major Donald Peterson served in Iraq, the computer networking engineer from Amherst could read 100 pages of technical material a night.Now, he said he has trouble reading at all.He suffered a head injury during a mortar attack while serving for 10 months in Iraq.Peterson, the recipient of two Bronze Stars, is among the many veterans who say they receive good health care from the VA.Evangeline Conley, the public affairs officer for the Buffalo VA, said there are thousands of satisfied veterans and that the staff is constantly updating its approach to deal with the influx of new veterans.But Peterson believes the VA could do a better job.“The problem is getting all of the appointments together. The body has a number of systems, and you need specialists for different elements of an injury,” the Army reservist said. “My life is pretty much consumed by medical appointments.”In addition to his head injury, he has four herniated discs.Despite his problems, the father of three is determined to get well.“I have to get over these headaches. I know it’s temporary and sooner or later it will get better,” Peterson said.Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the number of wounded coming to the VA for treatment.Last year, 431 local Iraq and Afghanistan vets signed up for medical care at the Buffalo facility — up from 61 in 2003, the year the war began.The latest VA figures indicate hundreds vets will seek treatment in the coming months.

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1 comment:

Veralidaine said...

I can't believe how badly our country treats the people who made the biggest sacrifices for it! I was just reading a blog by a disabled veteran on another website (it's in my profile if you want to see the site, but I don't want to link it here and take people away from your post) and it made me cry. Keep on blogging, and nice list of pols you support- I agree with almost all those.