Monday, August 24, 2009

VA simplifying PTSD compensation process

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Monday said the VA is moving to help veterans seeking compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder by simplifying the process.

Shinseki, a retired general and highly regarded Army chief of staff in the 1990s who oversaw Army "transformation" to 21st century warfare through the creation of Fort Lewis's Stryker brigades, was appointed by President Obama to do the same for the VA.

“The hidden wounds of war are being addressed vigorously and comprehensively by this administration as we move VA forward in its transformation to the 21st century,” Shinseki said in a press release Monday.

The VA published a proposed regulation in the Federal Register make it easier for veterans to claim service connection for PTSD by reducing the amount of evidence required if the stressors in the claim are related to a fear of military or terrorist hostilities.

Public comment regarding the proposed rule will be taken over the next 60 days, with a final regulation to be published once all comments are considered.

According to the VA news release, under the new rule, the VA would not require corroboration of a stressor related to fear of hostile military or terrorist activity if a VA psychiatrist or psychologist confirms that the stressful experience recalled by a veteran adequately supports a diagnosis of PTSD and the veteran's symptoms are related to the claimed stressor.

Previously, claims adjudicators were required to corroborate that a noncombat veteran actually experienced a stressor related to hostile military activity. This rule would simplify the development that is required for these cases, officials explained.

According to mental health experts, PTSD is a recognized anxiety disorder that can follow seeing or experiencing an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to which a person responds with intense fear, helplessness or horror, and is not uncommon in war. Feelings of fear, confusion or anger often subside, officials noted, but if the feelings don't go away or get worse, a veteran may have PTSD.

The VA has been beefing up its mental health service for combat veterans, adding thousands of new professionals in the last four years.

The department also has established a toll-free suicide prevention helpline -- 1-800-273-TALK -- and has a Web site available for online chat in the evenings.

At the Pentagon, meanwhile, Army vice chief of staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli last month announced the launch of the largest study of behavioral health ever undertaken by the Army.

Chiarelli, originally from Seattle, is actively spearheading the study that will be conducted by a dream team from the military, National Institute of Mental Health, academia and other members in hopes of better understanding the underlying causes of suicide.

I found out about Chiarelli's sincere passion for soldiers' welfare when I profiled him while I was working for the now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper in March 2008. At the time he was Defense Secretary Robert Gates' senior military advisor.

Chiarelli in a Pentagon news release said the $50 million study will examine behavioral health, psychological resilience, suicide risk, suicide-related behaviors and suicide deaths across the active and reserve components over all phases of a soldier’s career.

Findings will be presented quarterly with preliminary results due in November.

Chiarelli said the findings could be incorporated in real time into treatment programs. The Army had a record number of suicides in 2007 with 115, and again in 2008 with 139.

“[The study group] realizes this is not business as usual. We’re not going to wait for the final results of the study,” the general said, referring to the project’s five-year timeline.

“We feel that this could be huge -- huge for the Army, the Department of Defense and quite frankly, for America.”

The general predicted that an early recommendation will be to relieve stress on the force by increasing the amount of time troops spend at home relative to the length of time deployed. Chiarelli said deployment stress has shown to manifest itself in high-risk behaviors in soldiers.

“Unfortunately, in a growing segment of the Army’s population, we’ve seen increased stress and anxiety manifest itself through high-risk behaviors, including acts of violence, excess use of alcohol, drug abuse and reckless driving,” he said.

Chiarelli, a Seattle University and University of Washington graduate who maintains connections here, knows the stresses of war, having commanded every unit from platoon to corps level. Chiarelli, who grew up in Magnolia's neighborhood and entered the Army during the Vietnam war after completing ROTC at the UW, served two tours in Iraq.

He first commanded the famed 1st Cavalry Division and later Multi-National Forces-Iraq.

Now a four-star and second in command overall of the Army, Chiarelli is determined to get to the bottom of military suicides and prevent them.

"It rips your heart out," Chiarelli told a group of soldiers in June while on a week-long tour of Army installations to look for clues, a Pentagon news report said.

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