Georgia veterans who returned from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and amputated limbs could soon be part of a groundbreaking effort by the state Veterans Service Department, which is trying to create a national model on how to help these men and women and their families.
State officials want to provide treatment to veterans rather than rely on federal or private programs, something few if any states do. With plans in place about how to do it, they only need the seed money to get started.
Gov. Nathan Deal committed earlier this month to do just that as he unveiled his fiscal 2018 state budget, proposing the last of $6 million in bonds needed to renovate space at the Georgia War Veterans Home in Milledgeville to remake it into what state officials believe will be the nation’s first state-run “sub-acute” rehabilitation therapy program.
“These veterans deserve it,” said Tonya Jarrett, the warrior therapy unit coordinator at the home, a 17-acre campus with four multistory buildings and about 250 residents. “They are a most deserving group of people.”
If funding comes through as planned this year, renovations are expected to take about a year. Officials are hopeful doors to the new program could open no later than 2019 — serving about 58 veterans and their families.
There is no shortage of need, something that even some of the veterans already living at the home understand.
“We can’t wait to have ‘em,” said Scotty Aycock, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD and the effects of Agent Orange and who now lives at the home and serves as veteran council president of the campus’ Wood Building.
Officials said there is an overwhelming need to treat veterans with the issues they are targeting. There are more than can be helped through agencies such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA operates three medical centers in Georgia in Atlanta, Augusta and Dublin, and the state has consulted with them and others to understand veterans’ needs for the program
“We’ve checked with the three medical centers and they’re like: ‘Commissioner, build it. We will keep you full,’ ” state Veterans Service Commissioner Mike Roby said. “They have a list they can’t accommodate. We’re excited. We’re ready to bring it on.”
Admission would not be restricted to veterans from any particular era. Jarrett and Ernie Simons, the health and memorials division director in Milledgeville, both expect they may see predominantly younger soldiers in the unit. “We saw a need for this in Georgia,” Simons said. “It’s just something I feel we should be doing to help these guys and gals coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
According to state officials, more than 110,000 service members have been deployed from Georgia to Iraq and Afghanistan since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
And between 2001 and 2012, according to the Georgia National Guard, veterans reported to suffer from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries numbered about 38,025.
“It really came to a head with Iraq and Afghanistan because the way medicine is able to treat people in the field today versus Vietnam and definitely versus Korea or World War II,” state Veterans Service Department Assistant Commissioner Dan Holtz said. “It’s just dramatically different than previous conflicts.”
“We’ve got more and more of these veterans who have been injured from IEDs, from whatever the situation may be, they’ve got problems with traumatic brain injuries, they’ve got problems with post-traumatic stress, they’ve got amputation issues, whatever the case may be, but they’re living,” Holtz said.
Once admitted, patients would get help with what may be myriad problems. Drug abuse treatment, chronic pain and medication management are among them. Veterans in the program would also receive psychological counseling, physical therapy and cognitive training to help with memory loss and other functions.
The average length of stay is expected to be between 12 and 14 weeks, although there is no limit for patients.
Families, too, would be included in the program to help them with what Jarrett called “coping skills.”
“Two of the most prominent things we hear from families are ‘I don’t understand what’s wrong’ and ‘I do not know what to do to help them,’ ” she said. “This unit can address those concerns.”
While the program is starting small, with plans to renovate three floors of the campus’ Russell Building to house it, officials hope to one day expand it onto more of the campus. Ideally, they would build newly constructed small “cottages” to house smaller groups of the program’s veterans in a non-institutionalized setting.
For now, though, some renovations are already underway in a currently vacant building on campus that will house regular nursing patients who currently live in the building where the new program will be housed. And officials have their fingers crossed that their funding efforts go smoothly.
They are paying for construction through the State Home Construction Grant program administered by the VA. The program provides 65 percent of money for construction. The state must come up with the remaining 35 percent — hence the need for the $6 million in bonds.
Once in operation, however, officials do not expect to require state money to run the program. That’s because the state veterans department expects to cover the costs using federal money available to veterans with service-connected disabilities. That daily payment rate in Milledgeville is $343.59 for each veteran.
The expected daily cost to operate the new state program is about $310 per veteran.
“Since it looks like we can make it work, let’s see what we can do to make a go of it,” Holtz said of the department’s pursuit of the program. Other states, he said, may be “a little reticent to venture out into something new, but we’ve kind of taken the approach of ‘Well, we understand where you’re coming from but, you know, there’s a need out there.”
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