With the final U.S. troops leaving Iraq last month and forces in Afghanistan being withdrawn as well, thousands of military service members and their families are returning home, scattering across the nation.
And while most will arrive with few or no mental-health issues, others will need continuing care.
Joining Forces, a national initiative led by Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, was created to recognize, honor and support the service and sacrifices of servicemen and -women. Today, as part of the initiative, the first lady will announce that the country’s top medical schools are pledging to collaborate in an effort to get vets and their families the health care they need, no matter where they live.
Brad Cooper, executive director of Joining Forces, said in a conference call Tuesday that Obama would speak about the challenges some of our troops face in transitioning from a war front to the home front and about the impact these transitions have on their loved ones.
“She’ll tell this nation that post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], post-combat depression, traumatic brain injuries [TBI] and any other combat-related mental-health issues should never again be a source of shame in this nation and that mental-health challenges are not signs of weakness,” he said. “They are part of the emotional wave that are natural human responses to the brutality of war. And seeking help is a sign of strength.”
Matt Flavin, director of White House Wounded Warriors and Veterans Policy, adds that engaging the academic world at the community level is critical to providing necessary care for service members and vets.
“We find that when service members leave active duty and go back to their communities, they are going to see civilian-sector physicians and mental-health professionals,” he says. “And this is an absolutely vital piece of making sure that service members get the help they need when they need it.”
Cooper says Obama will address medical students directly, noting that as future health care professionals, they will have the opportunity—and responsibility—to “uphold our nation’s sacred trust with those who serve this country and, in doing so, will be able to show these heroes that this country is there for them, no matter what they’re going through.”
The need for more comprehensive tools in diagnosing and treating the military is evident, Cooper says.
“After 10 years of war, we’ve had nearly 50,000 men and women wounded, many of them severely,” he says. “These are the visible signs and wounds of a war. We also know that the invisible wounds—the signature wounds of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD and TBI—have impacted roughly one in five of our veterans.”
Veterans are living in every corner of this country, Cooper notes.
“We’ve got to meet our veterans where they live,” he says. “And that means our nation’s health care providers, wherever they are, need to have some fundamental understanding about PTSD and TBI in order to best recognize and then most positively impact the health care outcomes for our veterans . . . This is a long-term issue for the nation. As you know, those presently impacted are young. Almost all are in their twenties or thirties.”
Cooper says Joint Forces has received commitments from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), including 130 of the nation’s medical and osteopathic colleges, 105 medical colleges and 25 osteopathic colleges.
“The commitment is going to help train the nation’s future physicians on military cultural issues, including PTSD and TBI, as a focus,” he says. “They’ll also develop new research and clinical trials so we can better understand and treat these conditions and, importantly, share information on best practices in a robust community forum.”
John Prescott, director of academic affairs at the AAMC and an emergency physician who served in the Army for eight years, has family members serving the military. An academic physician for more than 20 years, he says medical schools bring a unique perspective to this issue.
“We bring together education, critical care and research and focus all three on the health care needs of military and their families,” he says. “And that’s a powerful force of change.”
Prescott says medical schools and institutions will share the most up-to-date diagnostic and therapeutic information related to traumatic brain injury and psychological health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’ve been sharing medical-education curriculum online using a forum we call iCollaborative to help ensure that the next generation of doctors and other health care providers are properly trained to treat those who have sacrificed so much for our country,” he says.
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