WASHINGTON – The bureaucracies that are supposed to help brain-injured war veterans are too complex for them to navigate,a panel of military and medical experts concluded at a meeting Tuesday.
Specifically,the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense need better coordination of their programs,according to the panel,which was part of a daylong Washington Defense Forum sponsored by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Military Officers Association of America.
The panel included two military officers,a doctor,a lobbyist and the chief executive officer of the Brain Injury Association of America.
“The systems in the VA and DOD seem to be against what brain injury can handle,” said Susan Connor,chief executive officer the Brain Injury Association. “Because the frontal lobe controls memory,thinking,judgment and processing … if you shove paperwork in front of someone with sustained brain injury or put them in a large group with scripted instructions,they can't follow it.”
Meredith Beck,national policy director of the Wounded Warrior Project,agreed,saying veterans become confused about which of many existing programs might suit their individual needs
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Peter Bunce is experiencing the two systems firsthand with his son,Justin Bunce,a former Marine corporal who has a severe brain injury after being hit by shrapnel in Iraq. Bunce called the VA bureaucracy “extremely daunting.”
“They have been doing things the same way since Vietnam and can't adapt to traumatic brain injury,” Bunce said.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham,R-S.C.,a member of the Air Force Reserves who returned from two weeks of active duty in Iraq in August,spoke before the panel discussion. He acknowledged that,because of improvements in medical technology,”The basic dilemma as a country … is that there is a large group of soldiers surviving that never would have.”
Dr. Thomas Gaultieri,medical director of the North Carolina Neuro-Psychiatry Clinic,stressed the importance of universal screening for brain injury. Gaultieri said the technology is available that could screen everyone serving in the military in 60 days.
Gaultieri suggested baseline screening of recruits and screening after even seemingly mild brain injuries and periodic evaluations of those who are injured.
“Diagnosis is difficult between traumatic brain injury and post dramatic stress disorder because symptoms are similar,” Gaultieri said. He also emphasized the need to reintegrate all brain injury veterans into some sort of community.
While Gaultieri spoke primarily about the complex problems of diagnosing brain damage,the other panel members focused more on the bureaucracy of the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments.
Beck said the solution is to overlap the benefits the two departments provide. “Overlapping benefits would help make veterans' access to benefits based on their medical record and not their status within the military,” Beck said.
Both military officers,Bunce and Cmdr. Rich Jadick,a Navy mass communications specialist,agreed that the most pressing problem is the transition an injured service members must make from the active duty to the VA.
“An assisted program is needed to point them in the right direction,” Jadick said. “Right now the transition is not seamless.”