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Veterans deceived in latest PTSD shell game Steve Hernandez, Board of Contributors: Area veterans deceived by upper VA officials in latest PTSD shell game

Waco Tribune-Herald - 4/22/2018

Although I am the McLennan County veterans service officer, I speak now from my heart as a veteran. As veterans, it seems we are always at war. The honor to serve our country comes with a price as veterans live their experiences for the rest of their lives. We may well leave the battlefield, but the battlefield doesn't ever quite leave us.

Mental injuries are incurable but manageable. Therapy, psychotropic medications, a strong support system and simply avoiding situations that may trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are strongly encouraged. For some of us, this unfortunately means living in a cocoon of reclusiveness, being viewed as anti-social, experiencing the inability to maintain gainful employment and suffering from depression. A lot of depression.

For 30-plus years, the Doris Miller Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Waco has had a program that helped veterans cope and better understand their mental injuries. Ask any participating veteran who has gone through this program and he or she will speak confidently of its success and worth. The Post-Traumatic Residential Rehabilitation Program - PRRP for short - has been a mainstay of mental-health programs at the local campus. But as with all successful programs and services, it is now being relocated to the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple. And local veterans don't know why. And current leadership of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System don't seem to care.

Bureaucracy once again reigns supreme.

Why would Central Texas Veterans Health Care System leadership even consider carting off this program when the Waco VA campus is ideal for mental health wellness with its sprawl, openness and easy accessibility? Why are hospitalization, surgical, ancillary and now mental-health programs being relocated to the Temple VA, leaving the Waco VA with virtually no assets and programs that can easily be contracted to the private sector? Why are we not fully utilizing the new Center of Excellence, which is researching breakthrough treatments for veterans returning from our current wars?

What we see: the federal bureaucracy's sly attempt to leave the Waco VA campus vulnerable to closure if discussions of underperforming VA campus closures begin again, just as we witnessed some 15 years ago. VA management out of Temple denies this. Yet we were told after much debate in 2016 that the Post-Traumatic Residential Rehabilitation Program would remain in Waco. Two years later here we go again. For this reason, I have lost trust in VA leadership.

Recently local management of the VA invited me to a town-hall meeting in Waco. Purpose: Enlightening selected veterans and non-veterans as to ongoing progress with the Post-Traumatic Residential Rehabilitation Program. Great, I thought. We will be able to meet face-to-face with management to address our grievances and concerns. Suddenly, an email appeared stating this event would be a "tele-town hall meeting." So much for any direct interaction.

I dialed in anyway. It was as enduring as a colonoscopy. One hour long, pure dictation from management, manipulated polling, screeners for questions, extremely impersonal. Mission accomplished. By now I'm sure this message is making its way up the flagpole of hierarchy within the Veterans Administration with kudos that thousands of veterans and stakeholders were reached - and that they all agree with the local leadership. Very similar to the Putin re-election.

This is the country we have become.

These charades leave me with the belief that privatization of VA services may not be a bad idea. I know at the field level many dedicated VA employees genuinely tend to the well-being of veterans. I warmly applaud them for their dedication and attempts to maintain a positive attitude under extreme pressure from upper VA management. It is this upper management that frustrates me. The VA system has allowed a fracture to develop and fester between attentive field-level employees and the hierarchy of an aloof management. It seems management's paradigm exists only to advance its position, pursue bonuses, hide graft and expel intellectual psychobabble to justify its motives.

Grim reality: An average of 20 veterans who served their country to protect our existence commit suicide daily and administration officials don't care, not really. Data can be manipulated, research can be influenced but the lives of those lost cannot be replaced. So if privatization is needed to shrink and root out this corrupt culture, I am now, at long last, a proponent.

Veterans are not made of stone. We are not robots. We need to be heard, face to face, not behind a partition of impersonal delivery channels. We served honorably and are not to be viewed as a commodity to be herded at the bureaucracy's whim. We deserve better and much more. Keeping the Post-Traumatic Residential Rehabilitation Program in place in Waco would ensure that mental health remains a priority at the Doris Miller VA Medical Center.

Steve Hernandez is McLennan County veterans service officer. His duties include helping local veterans obtain admission and treatment in VA medical facilities, domiciliary and long-term care facilities.


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