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Enough is Enough: Veterans Administration, Vet Center, CBOC offer resources to those in crisis

By Robert E. Macdonald

Mayor of Lewiston

Last week, I was invited by Dean Joyce Gibson of LA College to attend and comment on an exhibit being shown at the college. The exhibit consisted of 26 life-sized black silhouettes, each bearing the picture of a serviceman whose life had ended in suicide.

I was reluctant to attend. Being a Vietnam veteran, I still carry a lot of animosity towards those who shunned and labelled returning Vietnam veterans as “baby killers.” Many of Vietnam’s returning veterans were driven to suicide. There was no grief because, quite frankly, no one cared. Instead of condolences, it was “good riddance.”

Putting the past behind, I spoke of how different today’s Veterans’ Administration is from the VA 50 years ago when it came to mental health. I encouraged those present to seek help at the VA if they had concerns about a military family member who might be acting strangely or talking about harming themselves.

I advised that there were two places in Lewiston, the Vet Center at 35 Westminster Street or Lewiston’s CBOC (Community Based Outpatient Clinic) at 15 Challenger Drive. Here they will quickly be seen and evaluated. These facilities provide individual, group, family counseling and on-the-spot crisis counseling. These services are free.

Those in attendance seemed to walk away with a feeling of confidence in the VA mental health system.

Then came the front-page headlines in the Sun Journal on Thursday, April 20. It portrayed the VA mental healthcare system in such a way that would lead one to assume it was non-existent.

The source of the article’s allegations were Rep. Jared Golden (D-Lewiston), Sen. Brownie Carson (D-Harpswell) and Jerry DeWitt, a Tri-County outreach worker. All are veterans.

The first claim made in the article alleged suicidal veterans, seeking help, sit for days in hospital emergency rooms waiting for help from the VA. Really? Any patient who checks into a VA facility in crisis is immediately seen. I think those making these charges should supply documentation to back them up.

Next up is veteran outreach worker Jerry DeWitt. He actually chides veterans for relying on the VA, indicating the organization is useless. Really?

Let’s ask the many veterans who receive their healthcare from the VA. Appointments are on time, and there is very little wait when making an appointment. I know of no one in crisis being turned away; perhaps he could enlighten the public.

What is not clear is why Rep. Golden and Sen. Carson are trying to create an additional state bureaucracy to deal with what is a federal program.

When veterans are seen in an emergency situation, they are seeing a mental health professional, who can provide medication and, if necessary, hospitalization. How are eight state social workers going to provide help for veterans in crisis?

Maine has 20 rooms dedicated to mentally traumatized veterans at Togus. Veterans would only be transferred to a facility in the greater Boston area if there was no room.

In the article, Golden states he reluctantly went to the VA and at some point received a notice that he was suffering from PTSD. But Golden said no one from the VA followed up, so he brushed it off. Most people receiving a call/notice would follow up. Why didn’t he?

Lastly, if a veteran needs help to navigate the VA system, they can go to the VA for guidance. They can also go to the Maine Veterans Service, their local federal senator or representative, the multiple veterans groups that have offices at Togus or to one of your local veterans’ posts. With all these resources currently up and running, why do we need social service workers?

On May 11 between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be an open house/cook out for veterans and their families at the Lewiston Vet Center at 35 Westminster Street, Lewiston. This will enable you to get the real facts about VA healthcare from the horse’s mouth.

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