Troops' return puts pressure on centers

WASHINGTON - A network of community-based walk-in veterans' treatment centers is under increasing pressure as more and more former troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come looking for help.

A report to be issued today from the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Democratic staff says that nearly a third of all Vet Centers have seen the demand rise for outreach and other services.

The report surveyed 60 of the 207 Vet Centers operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It found that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder doubled - from nearly 4,500 to more than 9,000 - from October 2005 through June 2006.

The number of veterans with other types of possible mental health and readjustment problems also doubled, and in some cases tripled, the report said.

Half of the Vet Centers sampled reported that their expanding caseloads have affected their ability to treat their current clientele.

"The administration's failure to increase staffing and other resources for Vet Centers has put their capacity to meet the needs of veterans and their families at risk," the report said.

Among the other findings in the report:

"The Vet Centers' staff are dedicated and deeply committed to meeting the needs of veterans and their families, but without additional resources, even dedicated staff has limits," said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, the House VA Committee member who requested the report.

The report is the result of a confidential survey of Vet Center staffs. The committee's Democratic staff contacted a sample of 64 centers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Urban and rural areas were represented. Sixty centers responded.

The centers, part of the VA's Readjustment Counseling Service, were created in 1979 under then-VA Administrator Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran. He later served one term as a senator from Georgia.

The centers were designed to be accessible, storefront clinics where veterans could be seen almost immediately by a staff largely composed of combat veterans.

Their core mission is to help veterans suffering from mental and emotional concerns. PTSD, which wasn't even recognized as a medical condition at the centers' founding, is the most widespread mental health problem experienced by soldiers in combat. It can cause nightmares, flashbacks, depression, survivor's guilt and other types of anxiety.

Paul Sullivan, director of programs for Veterans for America, a veterans advocacy group, said the Vet Center report was disturbing but not surprising.

"We've been saying that VA is in crisis," he said. "It shows that VA does not have a plan. This is additional evidence."

The VA vastly underestimated the number of PTSD cases it expected to see this year, predicting it would see 2,900 cases. As of June 2006, it has seen more than 34,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for PTSD.

A recent VA report shows that more than 1 in 3 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have gone to the agency for medical help report that they're under stress or have mental problems.

A top Walter Reed Army Medical Center official told Congress last month that 41 percent of National Guard and Army Reservists reported mental health concerns up to six months after deployment, compared with 32 percent of the active-duty force.

Fifteen percent of the Guard and reservists were at risk for PTSD, compared with 9 percent of active-duty troops.