Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Older Inland veterans feeling forced out of counseling programs by newer vets

10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Press-Enterprise

A group of older military veterans in the Inland region says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is pushing it out of counseling programs to make room for an expected influx of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans.

Albert Cruz, 59, of Hesperia, said officials at the Victorville Veterans Center told him and other members of a post-traumatic stress disorder therapy group that "they have to bring (the group) to an end."

Cruz, a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, and his colleagues are convinced that their government is abandoning them.

"It's like a slap in the face," he said.

When he asked the veterans officials what he should do about treatment, he said, "They said, 'Well, if you flip out again, call 911.' "

Lois Krawczik, a psychologist who oversees post-traumatic stress programs for the VA Medical Center in Loma Linda, said Cruz is mistaken. She said the VA has no plans to eliminate programs at the Victorville clinic. In fact, the clinic is expanding, she said.

"There may be some changes," Krawczik said, but "we're not discontinuing or cutting back services."

Budget figures provided by the Loma Linda medical center show that funding earmarked for mental health has increased dramatically in recent years, from $70,000 in 2004 to $3.1 million in 2007. During the same period, the number of patients seen each month for mental health went from 6,700 to 9,600.

Cruz, and others, insist they have been told they'll have to go. Whether it is a misunderstanding or not, there seems to be a pervasive suspicion among older veterans, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder, both locally and in other parts of the country, that the VA is interested in pushing them out.

Stories of Cancellations

A dozen of those veterans, including Cruz, stood outside the Victorville clinic on a recent morning. They said they had all been given the same information about the counseling groups being cancelled.

In March, a group of veterans receiving therapy at the San Bernardino Veterans Center picketed the clinic. They said their therapist, Phillip Garcia, had been told to retire because he refused to drop Vietnam-era patients to make room for Iraq war returnees. Garcia is no longer at the center and said he could not be quoted for this article.

Two veterans receiving counseling therapy at the veterans center in Palm Desert said they had not heard of any cutbacks at their clinic.

David Autry is a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, a Washington-based advocacy group. He hadn't heard of the situation in Victorville, but said he has seen the same thing elsewhere.

"There was a similar situation in North Carolina not terribly long ago," Autry said, "where the VA had scaled back its PTSD counseling for Vietnam-era veterans and had cited the need to put more resources into the returning folks from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In some ways, the VA is pulling all the stops out for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of the other veterans," he added.

Cutbacks Denied

Laurie Tranter, spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., said: "There is no policy on cutting back on services for Vietnam vets."

Tranter also said she had not heard of any complaints regarding such cutbacks.

Former Inland resident Frank Flores, a founder of a veterans assistance group called Project Guiding Light, now lives in Texas. He said the VA hospital in Temple, Texas, discontinued counseling groups for nearly 150 older veterans.

"This is happening nationwide," Flores said. "They say, 'We're here to take care of our veterans.' That's a hell of a way to take care of them if you just show them the door."

But Nelia Schrum, spokeswoman for the VA Medical Center in Temple, said the groups were simply moved to a new VA center 20 minutes away in Killeen.

"They haven't been discontinued," Schrum said. She said Flores and other veterans might just be confused about the change.

Loma Linda's Krawczik said changes are taking place with programs here, too, and veterans may have trouble adjusting to that.

"It's easy for people, when it's an emotional issue, for there to be misunderstanding," Krawczik said.

While some counseling programs at the Loma Linda hospital are being discontinued, she said, others are being added.

"We have national rollouts right now for a variety of evidence-based treatments," she said. Those include peer counseling and a 12-step oriented protocol.

Veterans' Fears

Dane Steinberg is another of the veterans at the Victorville clinic. He said he and his colleagues don't begrudge the newer vets and support the aggressive outreach programs being conducted by veteran agencies. He just doesn't want to see the door close on him as a result.

"They're out soliciting the Iraqi vets while on the other hand they're telling us to go home," said Steinberg, 61, of Helendale. "Isn't that strange?"

Steinberg said two different officials at the clinic told him his therapy group was being eliminated by the end of summer. He and others suspect a sinister motive.

Wilfred Abeda, one of Steinberg's fellow group members, lives in Barstow. He is on 100 percent disability for his post-traumatic stress disorder. To maintain that disability rating, he said, he has to be receiving therapy. Several years ago, when his wife was dying from cancer, Abeda was her primary caregiver and couldn't travel to his therapy group, which at that time was in Loma Linda. He said the VA cut his disability.

"They said, 'You're not going to therapy. You must be cured,' " Abeda said. "They rejected me."

He was able to get his disability reinstated after he appealed and re-entered therapy. But he believes the same thing may happen again if his current group is discontinued. Only this time, he said, he won't have a group to go back to.

Project Guiding Light's Flores said such fears are not without merit.

"The VA does use medical treatment as a basis of continuing disability," Flores said. Veterans such as Abeda, he said, "are worried because if they're not getting treatment their disability will be reduced."

Programs 'Keep Us Alive'

Of even greater concern, Abeda said, is the well-being of his fellow veterans. He worries about possible suicides.

"It's going to happen," he said. "A couple of guys said, 'This is the only thing that keeps us alive.' It helps us a lot."

Some might wonder how, 40 years after returning from battle, Vietnam veterans can be so dependent upon group counseling. But Abeda was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder just five years ago. Many veterans have exhibited symptoms for years, such as night terrors, uncontrolled anger and the inability to hold a job, but never knew why.

"We've been suffering with this since (Vietnam)," Steinberg said. "I didn't get diagnosed until three years ago."

Now, he and others feel, just when they are getting some help, the rug is being pulled out from under them.

"That makes it pretty hard on all the guys," Abeda said. "You have to fight for everything."

Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or
Older Inland veterans feeling forced out of counseling programs by newer vets

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