ERIE - The message from the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center is simple, but its impact on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, their families and their communities will be far reaching.

"When you come here we have a program set up for you with people who understand where you've been," explains Jim Miller, manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Program.

In recognition of the fact that each conflict leaves behind a distinct set of physical and mental wounds, and that help is often most easily accepted from people who have served in those conflicts, VA Medical Centers like Erie have established OEF/OIF programs and are working to staff them with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Miller is a perfect example of this movement in action. The Erie native's 20 years as an Army mental health officer included time in Afghanistan. In addition, the program's physician assistant is a veteran of Iraq.

Their presence is a key plus in reaching out to and quickly and efficiently addressing the needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans across the region. It also can help those veterans feel comfortable as they seek help.

The shared history "carries of a lot of weight," said Miller. "You develop a relationship faster and that's important in ensuring the timeliness of care." Already a little more than 1,100 veterans from the medical center's coverage area - Crawford, Erie, Venango, Warren, McKean and Ashtabula, Ohio, counties - are receiving care through the program, and that number is expected to rise as National Guard troops from this region have been called up and are currently serving a tour in Iraq.

The program helps veterans through its Post-Deployment Case Team, a group of specialists trained to recognize and address physical and mental wounds unique to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each veteran is assigned a medical doctor, a behavioral health specialist and a case manager who conduct an evaluation. Then the team members meet to discuss the results. If additional care is needed, the veteran may be assigned to the Polytrauma Clinic, which handles physical injuries, or to counseling. Depending on the veteran's needs, this help may be provided at the Erie medical center or at one of the county clinics in the center's coverage area. The team then follows the veteran through his or her ongoing treatment.

In order to ensure veterans are aware of the program, the medical center has established an outreach program that has personnel meeting with military units from the area before and after going overseas. Families are also included in these meetings. In addition, staff members attempt to contact every veteran known to the program in person or by phone at least once a year. Representatives of the program also do outreach with clubs, organizations and at events. This Saturday, for example, representatives of the program will be at the Downtown Mall in Meadville from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the Crawford County Community Trade Show.

Outreach at such events is key because many veterans returning to the area are discharged from their units elsewhere and come home alone. The medical center has no way of tracking these individuals, so unless they make themselves known, the center's representatives have no way of knowing they are in the community.

The outreach efforts mark a major change in how Veterans Affairs does business, according to Rich Moore, a Vietnam-era veteran who is staff assistant to the director for special programs at the Erie medical center.

When Moore left the service decades ago, "I was given very little information about VA benefits. The rest was simply picked up by luck," he said. "Today there is a world of difference. The VA is very active in getting out there and telling veterans about their benefits."


Pat Bywater can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at pbywater@meadvilletribune.com.

Page last updated Wed February 25th, 2009 at 10:03