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Local vets coming home have health care options

MANATEE -- At least eight service members with ties to Manatee County have been killed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many more are returning home with wounds and scars they will carry the rest of their lives.

Among Florida’s 40,841 Iraq-era veterans on disability rolls are 756 from the Manatee-Sarasota area, according to a McClatchy analysis of 2010 Veterans Affairs data.

Steve Valley of East Manatee served as an Army sergeant major in Iraq, and he returned home safely. But he immediately enrolled in the VA health care system and gets annual checkups, knowing there are no guarantees for long-term good health after serving in a war zone.

Even though the U.S. combat role in Iraq is winding down, Valley says the toll on veterans’ health will grow for years to come.

“We’ll be paying for this for decades,” Valley said.

The Manatee-Sarasota area has 148 veterans from Iraq/Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, 34 with traumatic brain injury, 117 with leg limitation cases, and 44 with major depressive disorder, according to the analysis.

Other listed disabilities include 231 with tinnitus, 166 with back injuries and 109 with degenerative arthritis.

In response to the returning wounded warriors, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has increased resources at its hospitals and clinics, including Bay Pines VA Healthcare System in St. Petersburg and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa.

Last year, the VA closed its clinic in Ellenton and opened the Bradenton-based Outpatient Clinic at 5520 S.R. 64 E., which not only is a larger facility, but has more medical resources.

“We have a full range of programs available for all era veterans,” said Faith Belcher, a public affairs officer for Bay Pines.

The VA provides outpatient treatment at its local hospital and at the Bradenton clinic for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or other mental illness. Also available is a voluntary residential program that might last a few weeks or months for those needing a more intensive environment, Belcher said.

Traumatic brain injuries -- a signature wound caused most infamously by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan -- are also addressed at Tampa Bay-area VA hospitals.

Bay Pines treats milder cases of traumatic brain injuries, while James A. Haley hospital treats more severe cases, Belcher said.

Haley’s program for treating traumatic brain injuries is “second to none,” said Bradenton resident Lee Kichen, a Florida VFW service officer. “They have a lot of resources.”

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton, a partially disabled veteran of the Iraq War, says the expanded VA clinic in Bradenton is a tremendous service to veterans.

The clinic provides more services locally and reduces the need for local veterans to drive to Tampa or St. Petersburg for all their health care.

“That’s huge,” Steube said.

Dale Cage of Tampa served with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He is getting treatment for the depression that set in after he returned home, leaving him disabled and unemployed.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Cage said.

It took the intervention of his father and brother-in-law, both Vietnam vets, to finally persuade him to seek help from the VA.

At first, he was less than satisfied with the care he received, and felt that the VA, the military and Social Security sometimes sent conflicting messages.

But he now believes the VA has improved its care, and he is feeling slow improvement with his depression.

Valley recalls that the Army chain of command emphasized to veterans completing their tour in Iraq the importance of enrolling in the VA system when they got home.

“Go to the VA, enroll in the system and take care of yourself,” Valley said.

As a noncommissioned officer, Valley said he not only preached the importance of enrolling in VA health care, but followed through personally.

“You may not need the VA care now, but who knows in 10 or 20 years? You may develop a problem that could be traced back to your time in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “I’ve gotten nothing but excellent care from the VA in Manatee County.”

When he visits the VA clinic, Valley sees plenty of vets from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But he is concerned that he rarely sees the younger vets from Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I would like for them to come in and get their yearly physical that they are entitled to,” Valley said.

Andy Huffman, veterans service officer for Manatee County, agrees with Valley that it is important for the young vets to register for VA health care.

While Huffman said he sees many of the older vets in his office, he doesn’t see many of the younger ones.

“This is priority No. 1,” Huffman said. “Our job is to ensure the vets have VA health care. It’s an entitlement that we are directed to provide.

“Once in the VA health care system, there is an enormous amount of care veterans are entitled to,” he added. “I think the health care is better now than it has ever been.”

For more information, contact the Manatee Veterans Service Office at 941-749-3030.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.