June 22, 2011

Since October 2001, more than 2 million troops have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. An estimated 85,000 veterans from these conflicts have returned to New York State, with the number continuing to grow. A New York State veterans needs assessment commissioned by the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) and conducted by the RAND Corporation confirmed the significant mental health needs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in New York—22% of veterans have a current probable diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or major depression. Further, nearly half of veterans indicated a preference for receiving mental health care outside of the VA system.

At the conference, keynote speaker Colonel David Sutherland, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Warrior and Family Support, shared stories about his own return home after deployment, and how he and his family—like so many other military families—grappled with difficult questions: “How do I fit in? How do I connect?” Ensuring veterans’ smooth transitions home and quality of life cannot be solely a government responsibility; meaningful employment, education, and access to health care require a shared community commitment. Community-based organizations must be inclusive of returning veterans and do a better job of consistent outreach to veterans and their families so they know about services available.

Outreach, collaboration, and peer support were consistent themes throughout the conference. Terry Schell of the RAND Corporation, in his overview of the NYHealth-commissioned needs assessment, noted that 42% of veterans reported not having a good understanding of their benefits, so more education and outreach are clearly needed.

Two panels focused on promising solutions to meet the needs of returning veterans and their families. The first, “Building Capacity for Community-Based Services,” featured Colonel (ret) James McDonough of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester, New York, who emphasized the importance of a long-term, sustainable commitment to community-based programs, coordination of services, and choices for veterans and their families. Panelist Sandie Palomo-Gonzalez of the San Antonio Foundation shared lessons from the TRIAD Fund, a statewide effort to help Texas families affected by military deployments. Finally, Alfonso Batres of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) highlighted the work of Vet Centers, which provide readjustment counseling services to veterans across the country. These centers fill an important gap in services; 39% of veterans receiving services through Vet Centers are not seen at any other VHA facility.

The event’s closing panel, “Creating a Network of Support for Veterans and Their Families,” included Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), who stressed the important role that all community members have in meeting veterans’ needs, and IAVA’s particular emphasis on awareness, assistance, and advocacy. Next, Laurie Slone of the VA National Center for PTSD highlighted the work of the Vermont Military, Family & Community Network, a statewide effort to understand, prevent, and address the effects of war on servicemembers, family members, and whole communities. John Otswald of Hudson Valley Community College rounded out the panel, discussing his work to ensure a veteran-friendly campus environment that meets the unique needs of returning servicemembers.

To download the panelists’ PowerPoint presentations, please click the links below:

Colonel David Sutherland, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Warrior and Family Support, Department of Defense (also see Colonel Sutherland’s white paper, Sea of Goodwill, and a video on veterans and suicide)

Terry Schell, Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation

Colonel (ret.) James McDonough, Jr., President & CEO, Veterans Outreach Center, Inc.

Sandie Palomo-Gonzalez, Assistant Vice President for Grants and Programs, San Antonio Foundation

Alfonso Batres, Chief Officer of Readjustment Counseling Service, Veterans Health Administration

Tom Tarantino, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Laurie Slone, VA National Center for PTSD

John Ostwald, Professor, Hudson Valley Community College


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