Awesome Opportunity

The first week of January brought an exciting opportunity for us.  We were contacted by Tom Zampieri, Director of Government Relations for the Blinded Veterans Association and asked to testify before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.  We traveled to Washington, DC where Tom led us around Capitol Hill for three days.  After arriving in DC and checking into the hotel, we met up with Tom and we were off and running.

First, we had a meeting with the Subcommittee staff to tell our story and be briefed on the format of the proceedings.  What a friendly and dedicated group of people!  I apologize for not remember everyone’s names, but thank you to each one for your assistance and support.

Next, we met with Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and Legislative Assistant Eric Bursch.  Representative Herseth Sandlin had a most welcoming manner and listened intently to Sean.  We discussed the issues with transition from the DoD to the VA system, and the difficulties encountered with both VA and DoD benefits.  Since this meeting we have had steady contact with Mr. Bursch to follow up on the situation and provide assistance.

That evening we returned to BVA Headquarters in Chinatown and were escorted to supper by Christina Hitchcock, Exectutive Assistant at the BVA.   Christina is the woman behind the scenes for BVA’s national conventions among other things.  We enjoyed a wonderful meal and great conversation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010 we were up early for breakfast and on our way to the Cannon House Office Building with Tom where we would be giving our testimony.  We had a moment to meet Congressman Harry Mitchell of Arizona, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations before we began.

Click here to read the statements and testimonies.  There is also a complete transcript available.  If you follow this link you can watch the video of proceedings and testimonies.

Click here for the original article by Bob Brewin about the hearing:

Poorly Networked Systems Leave Vets on Their Own When Seeking Care

Despite efforts to create a seamless transition between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments’ health care systems, injured troops continue to encounter logistical hurdles and are not getting the support they need, witnesses testified before a House panel on Thursday.

Army Staff Sgt. Sean Johnson, blinded by blast injuries in Iraq, told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that he had to provide VA with a paper copy of his military medical records to receive treatment. Johnson’s wife, Melissa, said during an interview that her husband’s paper records can be measured in volumes, not pages.

Johnson, who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury as a result of the mortar attack in March 2006, is still awaiting a medical discharge from the Army Reserve 452nd Ordnance Company in Aberdeen, S.D. He told lawmakers that when he returned home to Aberdeen from the Fort Riley Army hospital in Kansas, Army and VA officials did not contact one another, so he had to initiate the process for continuing care with VA.

Despite his wounds, Johnson said neither the Army nor VA checked if his blast injuries had caused traumatic brain injury, even though he and his wife had concluded that his deteriorating vision, poor concentration and dizziness indicated he suffered from the disability. The Army and VA instead diagnosed him with digestive tract problems, he said.

In February 2007, VA determined Johnson had a “mild” case of traumatic brain injury due to multiple blast exposures, but by May 2009 he had lost all vision.

Families of veterans end up as primary caregivers, but Johnson’s wife said VA has not provided her with much assistance. She told lawmakers VA did not provide her with any information on PTSD or traumatic brain injury and added, “Everything we know, we looked up ourselves on Google.”

Melissa Johnson told Nextgov that VA needs to do a better job of educating families on the medical conditions of wounded soldiers. Sean Johnson told lawmakers that if a wounded soldier is diagnosed with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, VA should immediately provide the soldier’s family with literature on the subjects.

Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, chief of patient care services, told the hearing that VA works with family members and veterans prior to the wounded soldier being discharged so they can train and educate them on specific health care needs and issues.

VA case managers actively help veterans re-integrate into home communities, she said. The department provides skilled home care, home aide services and a variety of respite care options to support veterans and their families who require additional assistance at home, Agarwal added.

Johnson said VA admitted him in 2009 to a facility in St. Cloud, Minn., for inpatient treatment for PTSD, but ongoing care is difficult because the city is a three-hour drive.

Melissa Johnson said VA briefly provided PTSD counseling via a telehealth hookup at its Aberdeen clinic from June 2008 to September 2008, but the program abruptly ended due to a lack of funding, she believes. She said the telehealth PTSD counseling was valuable because it included peers, and VA should renew the program because veterans respond well when listening to other veterans’ experiences.

Retired Army Capt. Jonathan Pruden, an outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project in the southern states, told the hearing that VA should take a holistic approach to treatment of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and substance abuse problems, rather that treating each of the disabilities in isolation.

VA should develop a central clearinghouse of information on the facilities and programs to treat the related problems, said Pruden, who had his right leg amputated as a result of wounds he received in Iraq in 2003. A database would help clinicians easily locate available in-patient treatment facilities, he added.

Defense established the Post-Deployment Health Reassessment Program in March 2005 to identify mental or physical injuries resulting from combat, including PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Every Afghanistan and Iraq combat veteran is supposed to fill out an electronic post-deployment health assessment form, but a recent audit of a central Defense database showed the forms were missing for about 23 percent of 319,000 veterans, Joseph Wilson, deputy director of health care for the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission at the American Legion, told the subcommittee.

He said the American Legion believes the administration of the post-deployment health reassessment program is essential to successfully transitioning service members from Defense to VA, because the results would disclose signs of debilitating illnesses such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Noel Koch, undersecretary of Defense for wounded warrior care and transition policy, said the testimony from veterans at the hearing left him “shaken.” He acknowledged that Defense and VA have communications problems that have impeded care as service members transitioned between the two departments. But development of a Virtual Lifetime Record, a medical file that will follow troops from the time they join the military through their transition to VA, will resolve many of the problems identified by the veterans at the hearing, he said.

Koch said Defense needs to better track blast injuries that can cause traumatic brain injury and also develop a policy to send troops home from combat after three blast incidents, which the Marines currently do.

Rep. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., said he found the problems described by veterans seeking to navigate the bureaucracy in Defense and VA appalling, and added he wants to see action by the two departments even if that requires a “systemic cultural change.”

If money is a problem to care for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., suggested the possibility of a supplemental appropriation. Care should be funded “the same way we paid for the wars,” he said.

I cannot tell you how intense it felt sitting at the table, all eyes on Sean, listening to him speak about his experiences.  I was so proud of him!  Then, it was my turn (I was hoping I wouldn’t have to speak!) and I was able to detail the impact on our family.  It was an awe-inspiring experience to say the least!

It was wonderful to hear Sean receive thanks for his service and sacrifice, and to have so many intent ears listening to the story.  Many times at home we feel isolated in our circumstances.  For the first time we had the chance to say, “If this has happened to us, then to how many others?”  It was the perfect opportunity for us to promote support for Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers who so often fall through the cracks of the DoD system upon returning home, along with the veterans in rural areas who find access to appropriate health care and mental health services challenging.

We shook many hands and collected many business cards following the hearing.  There were so many people and faces that I surely can’t remember them all.  I can tell you that several have been in contact with us over the months and continue to follow Sean’s progress.

We went from the hearing to a meeting with the Armed Services Committee and then on to meet with Senator John Thune and his staff.  We discussed the delay in Sean’s medical board which would allow him to medically retire from the military (this process was started in 2007).  Sean and I had each met Senator Thune previously, and again we were impressed by his sincerity and concern.  We continue to be in contact with his office regarding our concerns.

Senator Thune, Melissa, and Sean

Up next was a meeting with Senator Tim Johnson and members of his staff.  We had met with Senator Johnson in 2006 while Sean was evaulated at WRAMC and he asked Sean for an update on his status.  We also talked about the Vision Center of Excellence and the lack of progress by the DoD and VA to facilitate its existence.  Senator Johnson made it clear that he will continue to support our nation’s veterans.  We have worked closely with his office since 2006 and are grateful for his support and assistance.

Tom Zampieri, Sean, Senator Johnson, and Melissa

We went to supper with Christina and Tom and reviewed the day’s whirlwind happenings.  I’m not sure how Tom keeps his busy schedule!  It was nice to relax and unwind after a long and successful day.

On Friday we had some free time and took a guided accessible tour of the Capitol Building.  The tour was unique as the guide was able to let Sean touch different things, and go “behind the cord” in several rooms.  We met Christina and Tom Miller, BVA Executive Director for lunch before walking to Ford’s Theater.  I was disappointed to hear that the theater is being renovated and we were not able to tour anything except the museum downstairs.

US Capitol
Sean touring the Old Senate Chamber

When we arrived at the airport, tired and ready to go home, we learned that our flight out of Minneapolis had been cancelled due to bad weather.  We landed in Minneapolis around 10:00 PM and found a hotel close by.  The next morning we flew out after much discussion and several phone calls by the pilot and flight crew.  As we neared Aberdeen the captain informed us that the plane was unable to land due to heavy fog, so we were rerouted to Pierre, SD and were sent on a four hour bus ride home.  We were certainly glad to be back after that!

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