Jim ``Woody'' Wodehouse says a substance abuse program affiliated with the local VA hospital ``saved (his) life.''``If it hadn't been here for me, I don't think I'd be here physically, let alone mentally,'' said Wodehouse, 60, who turned to the VA hospital last August after he had an ``emotional breakdown.''Wodehouse and other local vets fear that proposed changes at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center may mean they no longer receive the same level of care or may have to drive farther than they are physically able.
And it's not right, they say. ``We are good enough to fight. Why are we not good enough for our benefits?'' said R. Niel Arbogast, a Korean War-era vet, his voice cracking with emotion and tears welling in his eyes.
Arbogast and Wodehouse are among the many vets who have received outpatient care at the local VA facility. In 2002, 11,857 veterans received outpatient care there, according to the VA. The VA expected that number to grow to 12,450 vets in 2003.
A federal commission has recommended closing the facility, contracting inpatient care and moving outpatient care to an undisclosed off-campus location.
Vets helping vetsBut those who receive out-patient care at the local VA not only worry it may move off campus. They worry the staff may not be as trained to deal with veterans. They worry the staff won't be other vets, like they often are at the Wainwright facility.
Morry Daly, a recovered alcoholic, is one of those vets.
Clean and sober for 24 years, Daly became addicted to prescription drugs three years ago as he went through a difficult divorce in the Spokane area.
``My wife got a new boyfriend and threw me out, threw me from my home,'' Daly, 50, said. He was so angry he ``really easily could have committed a heinous crime and done prison time,'' he said.
Daly later became an alcohol and drug abuse counselor for the program that helped him. He is one of many vets who deal with substance abuse problems. The local VA facility helps about 350 substance abusers a year, VA officials said. Substance abuse is the main cause of homelessness among vets, Daly said.
He said it is unclear if the agency he works for, the Corps of Recovery Discovery _ which contracts with the VA to treat substance abuse victims _ will still work with vets if the Wainwright facility closes.
But, if it doesn't, local vets will suffer, Daly said.
Now, CORD. provides housing for 26-27 vets on average a day. In 2003, the agency helped 68 vets; the year before, it helped 57 vets, according to program manager Stan Grabinski.
Some CORD. counselors are recovered abusers, Daly said. Some are vets.
``No one can help a vet better than a vet that had the same problem and overcame it,'' Daly said.
Wodehouse recently went through the CORD program. He worries if substance abuse care moves off campus, non-vet-related providers may not understand their needs.
He said vets sometimes go through substance abuse programs ``six to eight'' times before they come clean.
He worries traditional providers may not allow that.
Wodehouse, a Vietnam vet, wonders whether non-vet facilities would have as quickly diagnosed his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder, which he'd never been treated for, posed an ``almost life-threatening situation'' last summer while he was living in Richland.
After retiring from Battelle National Laboratories, ``I'd lost my way,'' Wodehouse said. ``My family didn't know where to send me, what to do with me.'' He said finding people who understood his problem ``saved his life.''Louis Gonzales, a VA employee, said non-vet facilities might not understand other aspects of vet-specific problems.
Gonzales has worked with outpatient veterans in psychiatric care. He knows veterans who hear voices, hallucinate and have trouble sleeping through the night _ often the effects of PTSD, Agent Orange or Gulf War Syndrome.
Employees who work at the federal facility have ongoing education and experience in how to treat those patients.
Gonzales said the local VA helps by talking with patients and working through the issues with them. He says in recent years, the facility has done away with restraining psych patients.
Two former lockdown rooms have been converted to offices, he said.
But if local veterans receive care at facilities not prepared for the mental anguish, he fears the treatment will be much different.
``I can almost guarantee if it's PTSD they'll end up in restraints or over-medicated,'' he said.
Wodehouse also fears if inpatient psychiatric care is contracted out that a non-vet facility might not provide the transitional care he has received as he is moved from C.O.R.D housing back to the community.
C.O.R.D staff make sure ``you have a place to live, a place to go. They make sure you get your medication,'' Wodehouse said.
He also worries other providers won't offer the VA's ``umbrella'' of services. That includes ``spiritual to psychiatric to physical to medical, vocational, arts, crafts and recreational,'' Wodehouse said. He likes knowing ``when I need it, the nursing home and medical facility are right here.''444Help may be too far awayCharles A. French, 41, said his biggest concern is that medical services he receives at the VA will move too far for him to be able to drive to.
``Every day is just a fight. It takes strong willpower for me to get out of bed,'' said French, a Desert Storm vet.
``I'm in pain 24/7.'' French still suffers from knee and hip injuries he sustained during construction projects as a combat engineer in the United Arab Emirates. An undetermined severe illness while he was overseas left him with neck pain.
He sometimes wears braces to ease the knee pain. He says pain shoots from his hip injury down his legs. The neck pain causes hand pain, and he has to stop regularly when he drives.
The illness also led to chronic sinusitis.
The military deemed him 100 percent totally and permanently disabled.
For now, French usually can drive himself to the local VA facility for care. But, on trips to the Seattle facility, he usually has to stop overnight at a sister's home in Ellensburg.
Other times, he has to cancel local appointments. ``I don't know how I'm going to feel when I wake up,'' French explained. He fears if services move farther away, he'd have to cancel more appointments.
``I'd suffer,'' he said. ``I wouldn't make it (to the appointments). I wouldn't get treated. If you don't come for so many months, your medication gets cut off.''
He thinks that's wrong. ``When we fought for our country, they said we were going to be taken care of,'' French said. ``We'd always have medical treatment.''Pierre Remillard knows that the time it takes to get to another outpatient facility in the Tri-Cities, Yakima or even Spokane could be the difference between life and death.
Two hours was all it took for a friend to take his own life. Remillard said he got a desperate call from Tucson, Ariz., at 2 o'clock one morning. He'd been on both ends of the line before _ helping friends and asking for help.
But this time was different. This time his friend was sitting on a tree branch with the telephone in one hand and a noose in the other, beset by depression from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In a bigger city such as Tucson, Remillard said it is easy for veterans to slip through the VA's system, relegated to nothing more than a number.
``They stack you with paper. They make you a number, and you fall through the cracks,'' Remillard said.
That night, his friend didn't fall through the cracks. He jumped from the tree.
``At 4 o'clock in the morning I called the sheriff's office,'' Remillard said. ``They went out there and found him hanging.''444`Who cares about us?'R. Niel Arbogast, 67, had hearing problems before he served in the military from 1955-59. The left side of his body has been numb since childhood because of child abuse. But that didn't stop him from serving.
``That was in the '50s. It was much different then,'' Arbogast said. ``They didn't ask anything.''After he was discharged, he went to the VA facility for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and medical problems.
He said he initially went to the VA because the state refused to treat him.
He continues to go there ``because I get better care and treatment at the VA,'' he said.
That is partly because staff ``knows how we feel, what we've been through,'' Arbogast said. Even though he served in peacetime, he has experiences he ``want(s) to forget,'' but can't, he said.
As he spoke, his hands conveyed the same message in American Sign language. Tears welled in his eyes and his voice grew louder.
If some vets came back with psychological problems, ``Whose fault is it?'' he asked. ``They made it that way. They do not care enough to bring us to adjust to civilian life.
``Who cares about us? What have we done to deserve all of this now?'' he said. He took off his glasses and covered his face with his hands.