Ky. guard, VA create veterans treatment option

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Associated Press

Posted on November 7, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 7 at 4:01 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A new program in Kentucky is designed to speed up mental health treatment for combat veterans and reduce the wait for care from the federal Veterans Affairs administration.

The goal of the program, a partnership between the Kentucky National Guard, the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Louisville, is to move veterans more quickly into treatment after they are either referred or seek out help for problems such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, officials said.

"We just wanted the ability to have that immediate treatment," said Capt. Stephanie Fields, deputy State Surgeon for the Kentucky National Guard. "The backlog made it a priority."

The federal Veterans Affairs department has a nationwide backlog kept soldiers waiting more than four months for treatment.

A soldier's participation in the new program is confidential, which is important because many see a stigma in going in full uniform to an Army post and asking a doctor for help, said Col. Mike Abell, Brigade Commander 75th Troop Command of the Kentucky National Guard.

"That stigma and knowing that you're sick and need help have always been the rock and a hard place," Abell said. "We're supposed to lead the way. We're supposed to be expendable."

The Kentucky National Guard received an $80,000 grant from the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs to create the program. The partnership between the National Guard, a university and the state VA is unique, Fields said.

Nearly all of the programs run by either state Veterans Affairs offices or universities are academic studies or state-run treatment programs that do not also directly involve the National Guard, she said.

The program works like this: A full-time social worker handles requests with a relatively short turnaround time and a team from the University of Louisville handles the medication and privacy issues. Therapy is aimed at counseling, not just medication, Fields said.

Too much medication has been a complaint about the federal programs, Fields said.

"They wouldn't get actual, true treatment," Fields said. "They wouldn't get ways to deal with their problems, how to cope."

Any combat veteran living in Kentucky — whether a member of the Kentucky National Guard or not — is eligible for treatment.

"We don't care, as long as they're a combat veteran who needs help," said David Altom, a spokesman for the Kentucky National Guard.

Soldiers can get into the program either by referral from a military physician, a commander or they can seek help themselves.

The program started with six soldiers. Eric Russ, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville's Department of Psychiatry who helps run the program, expects 50 veterans to take part in the first year.

Russ, who underwent his medical training at VA facilities, hopes that because the university's program isn't part of the military system, veterans will feel more comfortable turning to his team for help.

"We can provide a place that is outside of their chain of command and the military structure, but still provide effective care," Russ said.

Soldiers in the program spend about 10 to 12 weeks being counseled, while some could take longer depending upon their needs, Russ said.

"This is still a pretty quick turnaround for folks who may have been dealing with these problems for a year or even in some cases several years," Russ said.

To Abell, those methods and the immediate availability of treatment could be a life saver.

"We're all changed by war. There's nothing you can do about that. We're going to come back different," Abell said. "Some soldiers, you come back better and stronger. Others, they need help."

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Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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