By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith, National Guard BureauFebruary 26, 2019
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Guard members requiring behavioral health care living in remote locations will soon benefit from a National Guard Bureau initiative.
The Veteran Center Outreach Initiative, a Veterans Affairs program, is designed to give Guard members access to the same type of counseling services often available in more populated areas, said Anthony Wickham, NGB's chief of soldier, airman and family support.
"Some of our Service members are literally hundreds of miles away from military medical facilities, and naturally, there are fewer behavioral health specialists, even on the civilian side," said Wickham. "This initiative increases our ability to reach those remote service members and their families."
As part of the initiative, mobile vet center staff members, who operate under the VA's Readjustment Counseling Service, will visit full- or part-time Guard members during unit training.
The RCS, said Wickham, coordinates with Guard behavioral health representatives at state and unit levels on when vet center staff members can provide services to Guard members.
The initiative's development began in 2016, noted Wickham, when he and a VA official discussed gaps in addressing Guard members' general health needs.
"Part of that [discussion] was behavioral health," Wickham said, adding that Department of Defense and independent studies also made it clear there were "geographically dispersed Guard members who could benefit from behavioral health support."
Wickham said most vet center counselors have military backgrounds, a behavioral health shortcoming the initiative addressed.
"Most of the counselors at the vet centers are veterans themselves," Wickham observed, "and understand what it's like to be in the military."
He added the initiative, slated to be fully implemented in April, is about improving the overall mental health of Guard members.
"If they can get treated early in this continuum of behavioral health care, then that Service member is not going to later become retention or a separation issue," Wickham said. "This contributes to their readiness."
In the end, Wickham said he hopes the initiative will continue to "normalize" the use of behavioral health services.
"People get sick, and sometimes they get sick in the body, and sometimes they get sick in their mind and need a little help," he said. "That's what this does."