With the questionable future of Walla Walla's Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the next challenge for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is whether they will be able to get help if they need it here.
``You have to have some place that you can come to and not worry,'' said Sgt. Rick Harvey, who served in Iraq with the Oregon Army National Guard. ``That property up there is a safe haven.''Walla Wallan Roy Murry, who served as a specialist in the Washington Army National Guard, said he wants to make sure he is accounted for when the local population of veterans in the service area is considered.
``I want them to know there are people coming back from Iraq who live here,'' he said.
The exact number of troops who could potentially use the local VA hospital is not known. The medical facility serves a 14-county area in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
According to Walla Walla VA staff, the medical center has 282 Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans enrolled.
However, not all of those people may be seeking care at this time.
While the medical center is being studied for possible changes under a federal realignment program to streamline VA services, resources at the hospital have become more strained.
In mid-October, hospital Director Bruce Stewart said 159 VA patients were waiting more than 30 days for primary care. Another 303 patients were waiting more than 30 days for specialty care.
Stewart said it is not known how much of the federal budget will be dedicated to Walla Walla's VA hospital.
Any increase would be used to help minimize wait times, he said.
Meanwhile, active-duty personnel and Reservist or National Guard members who served in a theater of combat operations are eligible for hospital care, medical services and nursing home care for related injuries for up to two years beginning from their discharge date.
At the end of that period, veterans can continue to receive free health care for injuries and illnesses officially connected to military service, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Laurie Tranter, a VA spokeswoman, said most recent numbers show that of the 430,000 of those who have returned from deployments, roughly 119,000 have gone to the VA for health care.
Of that number, a little more than 36,000 have had a provisional mental health diagnosis _ 16,000 with PTSD and 11,000 with depression.
Another 17,000 have had a provisional diagnosis for drug and alcohol abuse.
Tranter said in 2004 all VA medical centers across the country treated 274,285 veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD.
From Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, the three most common conditions reported are musculoskeletal problems _ joint and back disorders many attribute to moving with heavy body armor _ mental disorders and dental problems.
Walla Walla's VA medical center eliminated surgical activity more than 10 years ago.
About 60 percent of the facility's patients have their surgical needs met through referrals to other VA centers.
The rest are done in the communities where the veterans reside.
Services offered by the Wainwright facility include urgent care, ambulatory care, inpatient medical care, limited ICU care, nursing home care and a variety of mental health care.