Local veterans advocates are encouraging the Veterans Administration to restore a counseling program for veterans in Grant County with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Steve Bull, the former director of the VA clinic in Burns, traveled to John Day on Wednesdays to meet with about a dozen veterans suffering from the mental disorder. The program ended after about two years when Bull retired. Veterans are now expected to travel to Burns or Boise, Idaho, for similar counseling.
Bob Van Voorhis, an active supporter of local veterans in the John Day area, said he and Bull spent about a year organizing the PTSD meetings. He described Bull as a “man of faith” who had offered a “cowboy ministry” in the past.
Bull wasn’t a vet, but he had spent a long career working one-on-one with vets and had maintained strong relationships with the vets he was helping. Generally a PTSD counselor for veterans should be a vet because of trust issues — vets will tell other vets some things they would never tell close friends or family members, Van Voorhis said.
Many people develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event such as combat but also natural disasters, motor-vehicle accidents or sexual assaults. The experience can result in upsetting memories, feeling on edge and trouble sleeping. It can also lead to erratic or even violent behavior — to oneself or others.
The VA estimates that 7 percent of Americans are affected by PTSD at some point in their lives, but it’s more common among veterans. According to the Wounded Warrior Project website, more than 540,000 vets have been diagnosed with PTSD — including one in five veterans of the Iraqi War.
The VA established a National Center for PTSD in 1989 following a Congressional mandate. According to their website, scientific and clinical interest in PTSD has rapidly grown in the past 25 years. PTSD is recognized as a major public health problem and behavioral health problem for veterans and active-duty personnel who are subject to the traumatic stress of war, dangerous peacekeeping operations and interpersonal violence.
Van Voorhis said he’s contacted David Wood, the director of the Boise VA Medical Center since 2012, and Rep. Greg Walden about the need to restore the PTSD counseling program in John Day.
VA staff shortage
The problem stems from a staff shortage at the Burns facility that Wood is trying to address, Van Voorhis said. He said he’d give Wood to mid-December, but if no progress was evident toward resolving the problem, he would start up a letter-writing campaign.
Between 12 and 15 veterans participated in the John Day program, mostly Vietnam-era veterans but also some young vets, Van Voorhis said. Three had served as combat medics, an assignment that is particularly susceptible to PTSD because combat medics tend to “believe they can save anyone,” Van Voorhis said. Combat infantrymen had a different mindset because they were trained to kill, he said.
Bull helped the vets identify things that might trigger PTSD — such as sounds, smells and certain kinds of objects — and then learn how to deal with those triggers. Vets who “checked the perimeter” before going to bed at night would learn to step back a second and take a breath instead of immediately reacting to PTSD triggers, Van Voorhis said.
Grant County has a higher percentage of vets than most people might think, Van Voorhis said. And many of them “have testosterone running out of their ears,” so they aren’t likely to admit they have PTSD — they are functioning citizens, he said.
But the quality of life for these people is not good — they’re suffering even if it’s not visible. There’s no cure for PTSD, he said, but people can learn to manage the disorder, and the John Day program had a positive impact on its members.
Options for vets
Katee Hoffman, the new Grant County Veteran Services Officer, told the Eagle she had dropped in on the group and was aware of the need to find a counselor and get the local program going again.
Hoffman said local veterans had some other options, including counseling over the telephone. She noted that some people prefer to be in a physical group setting and some did not.
Joshua Callihan, the public affairs officer at the Boise VA Medical Center, told the Eagle that Bull had offered the PTSD group counseling in John Day on his own.
“Steve did this as a VA employee, on VA time, but the services he provided in John Day were not services that the Department of Veterans Affairs had ever committed to providing in John Day,” he said.
Callihan said the Boise center was actively recruiting a replacement for Bull at the Burns VA clinic.
“Until we know who the replacement is, we will not know if they are willing or able to travel to John Day to continue providing the same services that Steve Bull did,” he said.
Callihan noted that TriWest Healthcare Alliance offered a mental health provider for veterans in John Day. Under the Veterans Choice Program, eligible veterans in John Day can use the TriWest program because they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility with a full-time medical doctor on staff.
“That would mean via the VA’s Veterans Choice Program, veterans could receive mental health services in the private sector in John Day,” he said. “To schedule this care, veterans would call the phone number on their Veterans Choice Card and ask to be scheduled in that area.”
The Veterans Choice Program was created by Congress in 2014 to expand the availability of medical services for eligible veterans. As one of two companies contracted under the program, TriWest offers mental health services to veterans through a network of 25,000 behavioral healthcare providers.
Hoffman noted that veterans could go to Community Counseling Solutions in John Day under the Veterans Choice Program, but they may not want to for fear of being “branded.”