Chattanooga: Veterans getting more post-deployment help

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By: Lauren Gregory

The VA’s Tennessee Valley Healthcare System opened a special transition clinic for new veterans in 2007, said program coordinator Tonia Hardyway. But clinic services were housed in Murfreesboro and Nashville, leaving Chattanooga-area veterans with little clue about whom to see for post-deployment care — not to mention how and when.

The push to serve Iraq and Afghanistan veterans stems from concerns about early intervention to prevent future problems, said VA spokesman Chris Conklin. The transition programs were in place before recent reports of a suicide epidemic among returning service members, he said, but intervention efforts have become even more crucial since then.

     

Army reservist Chris Atkins had some major adjustment issues when he returned from a tour in Iraq last year — and he’s a licensed clinical social worker.

So he can only imagine the pitfalls the average Iraq or Afghanistan veteran might face coming back.

“I know what it’s like to have to reintegrate back home, still feeling like you’re wearing your combat boots,” Mr. Atkins said. “I knew how to handle it and prevent it from becoming post-traumatic stress. But (most other veterans) are not mental health professionals.”

Mr. Atkins hopes to help area veterans access the range of services available to them through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He is the first local “care coordinator” of the VA’s Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom outreach program.

 Mr. Atkins entered the picture earlier this month as the first-ever care coordinator for Chattanooga-area Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans. He takes referrals and does outreach in the local military community to make sure that both veterans and active service members know about the post-deployment care for which they can qualify.

As a social worker, he can evaluate veterans for various problems and then make appointments for them at the appropriate clinics in Chattanooga, Murfreesboro or Nashville.

Rex Jones III, a 25-year-old Army veteran from Athens, Tenn., said the program was crucial to his recovery from a 2005 bomb blast in Iraq. Mr. Jones said he needed to see several different specialists to take care of shrapnel wounds, severed nerves and a traumatic brain injury, but he wasn’t sure exactly how to coordinate all of that.

Though Mr. Atkins wasn’t yet in place, he remembers getting letters and phone calls to help him navigate the VA’s huge system.

“I’m so glad these people are out here, and they’re concerned about us,” Mr. Jones said.

The push to serve Iraq and Afghanistan veterans stems from concerns about early intervention to prevent future problems, said VA spokesman Chris Conklin. The transition programs were in place before recent reports of a suicide epidemic among returning service members, he said, but intervention efforts have become even more crucial since then.

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