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Striving to ease anguish left by wars
Drive aims to fill gaps in mental health care

Britten M. Walker was an Army sniper who had a breakdown earlier this year after three combat tours.

Chris Kreiger thought he was losing his mind after returning from the Iraq War with the Army, unaware that a traumatic brain injury had exacerbated his post-traumatic stress disorder.

And Dana Cushing is a Marine veteran whose years-long fight for Department of Veterans Affairs health care services has led, most recently, to a nervous breakdown.

Today, advocates for veterans are launching a fund drive -- "Compassion is courageous" -- to raise more than $535,000 to assist ailing veterans and their loved ones who are in need of mental health services.

"How can you say the answer for Walker is federal prison?" asked attorney Roman J. Fontana.

"If you get treatment immediately, your chances of adapting when you return home are going to increase," Fontana said of the mental illnesses that veterans often face.

Fontana, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a leader in the 60-day fund drive sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Erie County that aims to fill gaps in mental health services that he and others say are missing in the federal veterans health care system.

As for the notion of helping veterans through community resources, Andrew Walker, Britten's twin brother, says that's exactly what is needed. His brother was jailed after threatening and assaulting VA workers and two weeks ago was transferred from jail to a psychiatric hospital for an evaluation.

"I have other veteran friends who served in the [Persian] Gulf War who have a lot of similar issues [to what] Britt has had, and it seems like when they go to the VA Hospital on Bailey Avenue, they feel they have to fight the system as well," Andrew Walker said. "Unfortunately, Britt took it to the next extreme."

That's what organizers of the fund drive want to avoid by providing assistance to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is not the first time the Mental Health Association has gotten involved with assisting veterans returning from war. In the last two years, the nonprofit organization, which specializes in mental health advocacy and referrals to service providers, has set up programs that recruit attorneys and mental health professionals to donate their services.

Under the new proposal, family members of veterans stand to benefit, too, through therapy programs for them.

"If you live with a veteran who has mental health problems, you're probably going to develop some yourself," said Cushing, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and a traumatic brain injury from her two tours of duty in Iraq.

She says the VA has denied her hand controls to operate her car, which she feels she needs because of a service-related shoulder injury. In January, unable to turn the steering wheel quickly enough, she said, she was involved in an accident.

After that, life got worse.

"My doctor told me I had a nervous breakdown," Cushing said.

There is no question that returning veterans are not receiving adequate care, said Gretchen Fierle, chairwoman of the drive for the Mental Health Association.

"I was so appalled and disgusted at how our veterans are underserved," Fierle said. "We, as a community, have to solve this problem. We can't wait years and years for the government to change it. The system is broken, and we can't wait."

Part of the urgency, Fierle said, is that Western New York has about 3,600 service members who are still in the Reserve, the National Guard or regular branches of the military and have served in the two wars. An estimated 60 percent of them already have had or will require mental health services, he said.

Making the need for a homegrown solution even more pressing, she added, is that many of these war veterans among the Reserve and National Guard members are without a major military base nearby.

In regions where there are sprawling military bases, the infrastructure and programs to support returning war veterans exist not only for them, but for their families, Fierle said.

"It's really quite isolating here," she said.

Cushing, in fact, said she has considered moving to North Carolina or Arizona, where major military bases are located, in order to get better care.

The fund drive, however, is not about attacking the government or playing a blame game, but getting a job done that should have been accomplished years ago, according to Thomas P. McNulty, president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association.

"I was told by a VA official that the VA is good at fixing limbs and handling severe psychiatric problems but that they need help with kids and spouses of veterans," McNulty said. That is why he considers it important to raise money for counseling services and for WNYHeroes, a veterans organization that Kreiger founded.

William F. Feeley, director of the Buffalo VA's medical center, said that partnerships in the community can be beneficial in providing supplemental care for the families of veterans but added that the VA already provides veterans timely primary and behavioral health care.

The fund drive will go beyond collecting money for psychological help. It also will provide direct financial assistance to help wounded veterans cover expenses between their discharge from the service and when their benefits begin, according to Kreiger. He said he lost his suburban four-bedroom home because of delays in getting a VA disability pension.

It often takes a minimum of 179 days to receive benefits, he said, and during that time, veterans can quickly exhaust financial resources and end up broke.

"I moved my family into a two-bedroom apartment and had to keep an eye on my children because the neighborhood was questionable," said Kreiger, who eventually was able to buy another house in the Town of Tonawanda.

Unlike the Vietnam War, when the average age of U.S. troops there was 19, McNulty said that many of today's reservists and Guard members are often older and have a full load of responsibilities. "Now the veterans are leaving families, jobs and mortgages," he said of the call-ups to active duty.

Unless a veteran is certified 100 percent disabled, Kreiger added, the spouse and children are ineligible for medical services from the VA.

Businesses and other groups supporting the drive are National Fuel Gas Co.; Try-It Distributing; Boy Scouts of America, Greater Niagara Frontier Council; and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which gave space for posters at bus shelters. Wegmans Food Markets and Travers Collins & Co. also are supporting the drive.

The fund drive, Fierle said, will culminate with a major event May 22 at the Connecticut Street Armory, with admission tickets moderately priced. Those who want to donate online can go to the Mental Health Association's Web site, www.eriemha.org.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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