VA hears Vermonters’ concerns

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(Host) Military veterans from throughout Vermont got a chance today to bring their concerns directly to the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA Secretary James Peake attended two meetings organized by Senator Bernie Sanders. Peake says his department is working through a backlog of claims. And he said the VA has hired more mental health counselors to help those returning from combat.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The veterans took their turn at the microphone. They asked their questions and told their stories. Except for Connie Quintin. The Richmond woman told her husband’s story.

He was a veteran with 23 years of service who suffered from bi-polar disorder. He was a known risk for suicide. But on the last weekend of his life, Connie Quintin said her husband – despite his condition — was not hospitalized at the VA hospital in White River Junction. That Monday, he killed himself.

(Quinton) I just want to say, the health system tried to recover after, but it was too late for him. And I want families to not go through what I went through. I want the health care system to be there for these soldiers and families prior to.

(Dillon) Quintin said the VA hospital was full the weekend that her husband needed treatment. The family only found out later that he could have been cared for at a private hospital.

VA Secretary Peake expressed his sympathy for Connie Quintin’s loss. He said any suicide is one too many, and that his agency is working hard to address the mental health needs of veterans.

(Peake) We have invested significantly overall in the mental health and substance area, have expanded by about 3,800 the number of mental health folks, professionals that we have in our system. And even with that we are pushing to do more, to understand it better.

(Dillon) But other veterans told Peake that there is still a stigma attached to mental health issues in the military.

Marine Corps vet Nick Palmier said he sought help for symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder after a tour in Iraq. But he says that some veterans are leery of reporting problems.

(Palmier) They wouldn’t let me leave without checking every day with the sergeant that was back at the base at Camp Lejeune. And so a lot of guys don’t even want to say anything because I shouldn’t have to call back and check in with some sergeant when I’m spending time with my family because I simply asked for help.

(Dillon) In Vermont, the VA and the National Guard have launched an outreach effort to contact veterans.

The program has offices in six Vermont towns. James MacIntyre is the team leader. He says the guard has tried to remove the stigma for vets who seek help for combat stress.

(MacIntyre) We have leadership in the Vermont National Guard who are all, or some at least, are receiving help because they’ve been deployed. They know that it is important. They’ve encouraged their soldiers.

(Dillon) The outreach program was started with the help of Sanders’ office. MacIntyre said the goal is to contact every vet who’s returned from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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