New program offers unique approach to helping combat veterans

Offers shorter waiting times, more emphasis on confidentiality, less on drugs

Story by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

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Transitioning back to the civilian world is a challenge for any combat veteran, says Floyd Hunsaker, Director of Mental Health for the Kentucky National Guard. “The skills that kept them alive over there sometimes get in the way of what we consider normal life here at home. And this program is here to help them.” (Kentucky National Guard archive photo)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Following the withdrawal of troops in Iraq and the proposed drawdown in Afghanistan, the National Guard still has plenty of missions on its roster. One of the most important is taking care of its most precious resource: the combat veteran. In an unprecedented move, the Kentucky National Guard has joined forces with the Kentucky Veterans Program Trust Fund and the University of Louisville to develop a unique counseling program that will significantly change the way combat veterans are treated

Capt. Stephanie Fields, Deputy State Surgeon for the Kentucky National Guard, said the initial goal of the new program is to provide additional behavioral health resources for all of Kentucky’s combat veterans without the standard wait period they often experience with the Veterans Administration or their civilian medical provider.

“While everyone acknowledges that the Veterans Administration has been providing excellent treatment, the volume of soldiers has caused considerable wait times,” said Fields. “This new program will be a great help in that regard.”

But there is more to the program than just cutting waiting times. The use of medications and confidentiality issues also needed to be addressed.

“We also wanted to decrease the amount of medication use by our combat veterans by helping them with problem solving skills and ways to manage the stresses in their lives,” Fields said.

Confidentiality was a huge factor in the program. “Sometimes our veterans are reluctant to come in for help because of a perceived stigma, or they might be afraid asking for help might affect their military career,” said Fields. “We had to provide assurances if we were going to make any headway into those problems.”

A unique partnership

Thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Kentucky Veterans Program Trust Fund, the new program attacks all three goals head on. A full time social worker handles requests with a relatively short turnaround time and a team from the University of Louisville has an innovative approach to dealing with the medication and privacy issues.

Dr. Eric Russ is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Department of Psychiatry who used to work with the VA.  He is very familiar with the issues facing today’s combat veteran and he has a staff that shares his passion.

“Our team is really enthusiastic about working with combat veterans. We’ve got a lot of expertise at the university in working on PTSD and depression and I’ve worked with veterans before, so this opportunity was pretty exciting for all of us.”

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PTSD and depression aren’t suffered alone — they are suffered by families. The treatment the new program can go a long way in improving relationships and helping patients reconnect with their families, with their spouses and with their kids. (Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs archive photo)

“While medications can certainly play an important part in the treatment of some of these disorders,” said Russ, “for something like PTSD the gold standard treatment of care is ‘talk therapy.’ Particular kinds of talk therapy have proven to do really well, reducing PTSD symptoms in as little as ten to twelve weeks. We work really hard to keep medication use to a minimum and in some cases use none at all.”

Ten to twelve weeks is optimal, Russ explained. “The average is more like sixteen. This is still a pretty quick turnaround for folks who may have been dealing with these problems for a year or even in some cases several years.”

Then there is the issue of privacy and confidentiality. Russ hopes that because the U of L program is outside of the VA and the military system, veterans will feel more comfortable coming to his team for help. “We can provide a place that is outside of their chain of command and the military structure, but still provide effective care.”

Floyd Hunsaker, Director of Psychological Health for the Kentucky Army National Guard is especially excited about the new program.

“We certainly welcome this additional resource to help with our combat veterans,” said Hunsaker. “This will help them deal with the issues they are facing following their deployments. And it doesn’t have to be a PTSD issue. If you’ve got problems at home, things don’t seem right, this is a great opportunity to address all of those things.”

“If you’re a soldier and your friends and family say you’ve changed, maybe you should stop and think about what they’re talking about,” said Hunsaker. “The skills that kept them alive over there sometimes get in the way of what we consider normal life here at home. And this program is here to help them.”

According to Hunsaker, addressing confidentiality and getting hooked on medication are key to overcoming most veteran’s reluctance to asking for help.

“Now there’s no excuse,” he said.

Help for both combat veterans and their families

Russ expressed confidence in the service the new program provides. He hopes to help not just the individual combat veteran, but their families and loved ones as well.

“The big message for families is that these problems are treatable,” he said. “Don’t believe what you see on television or in the movies. For a long time in mental health, particularly with veterans coming back from Vietnam and other conflicts, we didn’t have a good handle on PTSD and depression.  We do now.

“These are diseases that aren’t suffered alone — they are suffered by families. The treatment we do with individuals can go a long way in improving relationships and helping patients reconnect with their families, with their spouses and with their kids.”

If you are a combat veteran in need, or you know of a combat veteran who can benefit from this program, contact 1st Lt. Adela McIntosh at adela.p.mcintosh.mil@mail.mil or 859-893-2000.

Troops requesting to make confidential appointments will need to contact Dr. Russ at 502-588-4883.

Please note that you do NOT have to be in the Kentucky National Guard to participate.

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