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Advocates aim to keep focus on veterans’ care

The waiting-list and cover-up scandals involving several of the country’s Veterans Affairs hospitals have been in the headlines leading up to this Memorial Day.

As today brings ceremonies, dedications, parades, fundraisers, patriotic rituals and other remembrances, the contrast between the respect afforded fallen soldiers and the revelations of poor treatment of living veterans has not gone unnoticed.

“We take care of the dead much better than the living,” said David Martin, Northeast Regional Coordinator for Higher Education Veterans Programs at Lake Superior College.

When reached to discuss the juxtaposition, VA representatives from the Twin Ports chose not to comment. But other Northland residents who work with veterans did talk.

“There are huge things going on with VA health care, homelessness, suicide,” Martin said. “It’s right in front of everybody, so everybody is ignoring it.

“I feel like we’re supposed to have a better infrastructure. These are tough questions and you have got to ask yourself, ‘What can I do about it?’ ”

Jeff Hall, team leader at the Duluth Veterans Center, oversees a group of licensed counselors and social workers who all are veterans and who serve as sort of a VA-funded special forces unit in an effort to address veterans in need.    

“One of the beefs I’ve got is we look to the VA to do everything,” Hall said. “It shouldn’t be reduced to what the VA has to offer.”

The advantage of his counseling unit and the 300 others like it across the country is that his team often is on the road, taking its services to veterans who need someone they trust to talk to.

“We can be nimble and not get bogged down in bureaucracy,” Hall said. “We do a lot of outreach.”

Changes in Vietnam History has never lacked for places for a soldier to go and be listened to. Even today, there still is a wide array of veterans’ organizations. World War II veterans used those groups to positive effect when they returned home, and the welcoming committees were fiercely supportive. But that started to change during the Vietnam War, when many returning veterans were subjected to backlash and harsh words. The effects of that have lingered.

Lake Dziengel, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Minnesota Duluth, helps train social workers to assist veterans, and rural and Native American communities. Dziengel blames the government’s labeling of Vietnam for part of the problem.

“We had a hiccup in terms of Vietnam when we called it a ‘conflict’ and not a war,” he said. “For a long time, those folks weren’t able to access benefits and that was a tragedy.”

For Vietnam veterans, treating post-traumatic stress disorder initially wasn’t an option, at least using that terminology. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by the American Psychiatric Association, failed to recognize PTSD until its third edition, in 1980, when it was categorized as an anxiety disorder. Only in 2013, with the fifth edition of the DSM, was it categorized as a “trauma- and stress-related disorder.”  

That lag time “interfered with the flow of services,” Dziengel said. “A lot of folks

didn’t get the help they needed.”

A new wave Dziengel said the VA and civilian health care community braced for a wave of soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. He continues to attend sessions and trainings intended to sharpen professional response to the needs of today’s soldiers. Still, the new wave came on like a tsunami, Dziengel said, overwhelming the systems in place.

“They were trying to anticipate some of the fallout, but they couldn’t anticipate the extent of it,” Dziengel said. “The efforts for the last five years to catch up with mental health provisions have been slow.”

Those services take time and money to develop — but as the wars continued in the Middle East, the U.S. economy crashed and resources diminished.

“Society steered away,” Dziengel said. “A lot of programs serve veterans by trying to do more with less.”

Stacey Rhodes was a combat medic who served in Iraq and learned first-hand how to do more with less.

“We didn’t always have resources thrown in our laps,” she said. “There are always obstacles. I don’t think that’s anything new for a soldier.

“One of our primary jobs is to figure out how to work with what we have.”

Now a licensed counselor working under Hall at the Duluth Veterans Center, Rhodes is growing accustomed to operating as part of that mobile counseling unit.

When she makes the connection between what she does today and her days on Forward Operating Base Loyalty in Baghdad, it sounds like her triage work just continues along.

“We’re doing everything we can to find ways to reach people,” she said of her current work. “Each person is an individual. Each battle is different with different obstacles. I don’t know that there’s a strategy we can lay across the board. It’s a challenge we care deeply about here.”

Among the most troubling reports out of the ongoing VA scandal is that extremely long wait times led to the deaths of some veterans seeking medical care.

Had the federal system operated in the way Hall tries to help for Northland veterans in need, the crisis could have been averted.   

“Do today’s work today,” Hall said. “If they need anything, do it then and there.”