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OP-ED: Veterans help returning service members deal with PTSD
One man from described it as "something you always live with." Another said: "Trying to live with this stuff ... it's hard. It's really hard."
They're not talking about physical afflictions. These men are both veterans of our Armed Forces, and they're talking about their post-traumatic stress disorder. For them, it's the constant reminder of their time in Vietnam more than 40 years ago.
"When I first got home, my parents sent me to a psychologist, and he said I was suffering from malaise," one former Army sergeant told me. "I didn't know there was anything available to help me. Nobody ever told us that. I didn't talk to anybody."
A former Marine corporal explained it this way: "I know what it's like to spill blood for your country, and when you come home with problems, you're smacked in the face and told, 'There's nothing wrong with you. Come on, suck it up, you're a Marine.'"
These are the voices of the people I represent, and they speak for veterans all across the country.
We are facing a growing crisis. Too many of these men and women are still suffering, despite a better understanding of mental health and more advanced treatments. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. If that's not disturbing enough, there is this: 17 of those 22 never accessed care at a VA facility.
Over the last year, our country faced a crisis of confidence in Veterans Affairs. We were stunned by revelations of systematic failures nationwide that led to outrageous wait times, lost medical records, inadequate care, and avoidable deaths.
In response, Congress instituted a number of reforms aimed at increasing VA oversight and expanding flexibility and choice for veterans.
During this session of Congress, we passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to evaluate and expand suicide prevention and mental-health programs. Thanks to bipartisan efforts, President Barack Obama signed this bill into law.
These are all good steps toward ensuring better care for our returning veterans, but more can and must be done.
After conversations with veterans and mental-health-care providers, I introduced the Veterans' Mental Health Care Access Act with Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, my Democratic colleague from Texas. It builds upon last year's efforts by allowing any individual in the Veterans Choice Program to immediately access mental-health care at any facility — anywhere, anytime.
It's a commonsense idea: If the government pays for a Medicare patient to visit your local hospital, it can and should pay for a veteran who seeks care at that same hospital.
In our bill, any facility eligible for Medicare reimbursement is now available for a veteran with a mental-health-care need.
While the Veterans Choice Program made great strides toward ensuring veterans received timely care, it fell short of addressing the crisis of invisible wounds.
Many of the veterans I have spoken with addressed the unfortunate stigma surrounding mental health. The Marine corporal quoted above also told me: "You're afraid to admit there's something wrong with you. You don't want people to think you're crazy."
The Army sergeant described the isolation he felt while suffering from PTSD: "My twin brother was in Vietnam too. He didn't want to talk about it, even with me. And I didn't want to talk about it with him."
Both of these veterans now work through their PTSD support groups to welcome home returning service members, who share similar concerns.
One soldier recently home from Afghanistan, where he earned a Bronze Star, lamented that veterans must have better access to mental-health services.
The message from these conversations was clear: The mental-health-care resources veterans couldn't take advantage of 40 years ago finally exist today, but many are still hesitant to use them.
Whether it's because they don't know what resources are available or are concerned about the stigma surrounding mental-health issues, it's clear that our nation is failing to care for its veterans' needs.
We can start to alleviate some of these concerns by offering veterans the flexibility to visit any facility. Community health centers might offer more privacy than a VA center or different amenities, and that could be enough to encourage our service men and women to seek the help they need. They must have that choice.
We have a clear mission. The men and women who fought and served our country deserve the highest-quality, comprehensive care for their bodies, minds, and spirits. It is our hope that the Veterans' Mental Health Care Access Act will help us deliver it.
— U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican, represents New Jersey's Third Congressional District. Contact him via macarthur.house.gov. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.