Four local veterans gave one more sacrifice to their country on Thursday, as they testified before a field hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Health.
The Congressional hearing was held at the Modesto American Legion Hall — home division of acting subcommittee chair Jeff Denham. The focus of the hearing was the Veterans Health Administration and the role of Vet centers.
“Last October, I once again returned to the combat theater, this time as a member of the Congressional delegation to Afghanistan. In the next two years, several hundred thousand of our servicemembers will return home from overseas and what I saw on that trip makes it clear that now more than ever, we must be vigilant about safeguarding the health and mental well-being of our servicemembers and veterans. And, in that endeavor, we have perhaps no greater tool than VA Vet centers,” said Denham in his opening remarks. Denham is a veteran of Desert Storm and served in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves for 16 years.
The subcommittee heard from a panel of local veterans, who served in a variety of operations, and then from a panel of service providers from the Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County departments of Veterans Affairs, the Modesto Vet Center, and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
Each member on the panel of veterans service providers testified about the many programs their individual organizations provide for veterans, and the recent expansion of services put into place to help Operation Iraqi Freedom/ Operation Enduring Freedom vets.
The personal stories told by the local veterans, however, painted a picture of a bureaucratic nightmare when leaving the military and the lifeline they each found at their local Vet Center.
Inadequate preparation for transitioning from the military to civilian life was a theme heard over and over during Thursday’s hearing. All of the local vets talked about rage issues, marital problems and general feelings of being all alone in their struggles after leaving the service.
“There’s just so much pain, so much loss,” testified Phillip White, a Modesto veteran of OIF/OEF. “They literally just kick your ass out of the military. You have 90 days to find a job, find out what to do with your life. There’s no transition.
“One thing that is clear to me is the value of Vet centers,” White said.
Another Modesto veteran of OIF/OEF, Ryan Lundeby, credited the Vet Center with saving his marriage. He said only other veterans, who take a personal interest in the well-being of their fellow vets can reach out to those suffering from post traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts or rage issues.
“I’m an Airborne Ranger, I don’t need help,” Lundeby said of his initial thoughts after leaving the service. “Without the Vet Center, I wouldn’t have my wife right there,” he said pointing to his wife in the audience.
“The Vet centers can help because they work in strict confidentiality. Also, most of the staff of the Vet centers are combat vets. It is much easier for a servicemember to talk to someone with a similar background, and can relate to what the servicemember has been through and is experiencing in their life,” Lundeby testified. “Less than one percent of Americans today serve in combat. These brave men and women selflessly risk their lives defending our freedoms. In our history, the price of freedom has never been laid on so few shoulders. We owe them more than our thanks. We owe our combat veterans every opportunity to readjust to civilian life. With the help of properly staffed Vet centers, we can help our combat veterans acclimate to their civilian life.”
While the surge in returning OIF/OEF veterans has put the newest strain on veterans services, all veterans are in need of improved mental health services, testified one panelist.
Chris Lambert, a resident of Citrus Heights and a veteran of the Vietnam War, testified about his experiences being a second generation veteran and the rage he had to deal with from the perspective of a child of a combat vet, and a combat vet himself.
House subcommittee member Jerry McNerney (CA-11) thanked the witnesses for testifying and promised to continue to work towards getting the services each veteran needs and deserves.
“A bill that I supported last Congress, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, required the VA to establish a program to provide mental health services and readjustment counseling to veterans, their family, as well as members of the National Guard and Reserve,” McNerney said.
“I have been concerned that the VA has not made sufficient progress implementing these provisions. I am working with a bipartisan group of my colleagues on this committee to make sure that the VA is meeting its obligations under the law. I will continue fighting for implementation of this program so that the needs of our nation’s veterans are met.
“Each generation of veterans has its own unique needs. It is important that Vet centers are prepared to meet the needs of our new veterans and their families while still caring for those from previous conflicts.”
Visit www.turlockjournal.com to view video footage of local vets testifying before the subcommittee.