Remembering the stress of those who serve

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 13:16
Resources available for Alaska veterans
  • Army Lt. Col. Andrew DeKever speaks to U.S. Army Alaska Soldiers during a Ready and Resilient Campaign briefing about suicide and PTSD. DeKever served as a mortuary affairs officer in Afghanistan several years ago and for a time had difficulty dealing with combat stress. Both the Alaska VA and JBER have resources available for veterans in stress. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jim Hart)

As the home to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the Municipality of Anchorage including the towns of Eagle River and Chugiak are the definition of military-friendly.

There are many reasons the area appeals to vets, including community, livelihood, atmosphere, and work. In short, Alaska knows and understands its military population.

“If you are fortunate enough to have base access, the community spills over to the base and the base is part of the community,“ said Samuel Hudson, in an interview with the Star.

Hudson has been the Public Affairs Officer for the Alaska Veterans Administration Healthcare System since 2013, and is a retired 20-year Navy veteran.

“We utilize our community more than any other VA.  We go beyond trying to take care of the vet,” he said.

In 2014, according to the National Center for VA Analysis and Statistics, there were 73,397 veterans living in Alaska. This figure includes 36,254 Gulf War vets, 20,538 Vietnam vets, 2,388 Korean War vets and 1,078 vets who served in World War II. Eighty-six percent are male and 14 percent female.

Hudson believes the total number is actually closer to 77,000, which is more than 10 percent of the population.

He cited quite a few dedicated employees who go above and beyond to support these veterans.

“Kathleen Johnson, our patient advocate, is just one example of someone who puts in extra hours and stays late,” he said.

Veterans in crisis

Nationally, 20 veterans per day are committing suicide. The Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics reported that in 2013, five Alaska Vets died by suicide, 24 attempted, and 47 were identified as being high risk.

A July report from the VA Suicide Prevention Program examined more than 50 million veteran records, from 1979 to 2014. It concluded that out of the average of 20 veterans who died from suicide each day in 2014, six of the 20 were users of VA services. In addition, about 65 percent were 50 years old or older.

Across the board, veterans have committed suicide at a higher rate than the general civilian population. Although veterans make up 8.5 percent of the population, they account for 18 percent of all suicides.

“Whether we are high or low, one veteran’s suicide is too many,” Hudson said. “We’re not perfect, but our intent is solid. Our intent is to care. People at the VA are working for the love of the veterans and their families.”

In a telephone interview with the Star, a spokesperson with VA Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., was asked why all veterans don’t seek assistance from the VA. 

“Not everyone who is a vet uses the VA,” she replied. She asked not to be identified.

A veteran herself, she estimated that 50 percent of the VA staff is comprised of veterans and noted there are nearly 22 million veterans in the U.S. Using the VA for medical services is optional, “just like getting a VA loan is optional. But we know that the people who do come to the VA for mental healthcare do have a lower rate of suicide,” she said.

Constant connectivity

The VA has a dedicated Veterans Crisis Line, a 24-hour, toll-free hotline. Veterans can call to speak to a responder trained in crisis management. 

A May 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, was critical of the hotline, citing crisis calls that were passed along to less rigorously trained counselors at overflow call centers. The VCL acted on the GAO data, and opened a new call center in Atlanta on Oct. 10.

The VCL is on track to have zero rollover to contracted back-up centers by the end of November. By then, the VCL is expected to have a total of 510 responders and 68 social service assistants on staff, fully trained and able to help veterans in crisis.

And finally, the VA has estimated that, in a given year, as many as 20 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues that are linked to an increased risk of depression and suicide.

In response to these concerns, the VA offers free, award-winning apps that can be downloaded and installed on phones and computers to help vets manage stress. 

For instance, PTSD Coach provides education about PTSD, self-assessment, and tools to help manage everyday stresses. Users customize it with their own contacts, photos, and music. 

Other apps are designed to work in conjunction with cognitive therapy, help vets organize and access medical records, among other needs. All of the apps may be found in the VA’s app store.

More information for Resiliency Resources at JBER can be found here.

A.E. Weisgerber is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New Jersey Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @aeweisgerber.


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