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VOL. 126 | NO. 238 | Wednesday, December 07, 2011

New Generation

VA hospital improvements point to new attitude toward vets

By Bill Dries

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It was 70 years ago that a new generation of veterans was created when the U.S. entered World War II.

John Whirley is a clinical psychologist for the Memphis Veterans Administration Hospital. He is a Vietnam vet and has worked with veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

And the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor – Wednesday, Dec. 7 – comes as another new generation of service men and women return home from the war in Iraq, where U.S. troops will exit by the end of the month.

Among the doctors and counselors at the Memphis Veterans Administration hospital who have been seeing veterans of the war as well as the continuing U.S. war in Afghanistan for several years now is clinical psychologist Dr. John Whirley, himself a Vietnam veteran.

Whirley interned at the Memphis VA in the late 1970s as his fellow veterans began changing the nature of care and counseling just as each generation of vets before and after have had an impact.

The number of deployments is one of several factors that make the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans different than the World War II and Vietnam veterans, Whirley said.

“I’ve had a vet observe to me very recently that two or three veterans can be in the same truck at the same time and get hit by the same IED (improvised explosive device) and have fairly different responses to the experience,” he said. “Trying to generalize is certainly difficult.”

Nancy Withers, the coordinator of services specifically for the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, said the Memphis VA has provided help to 15,000 of those veterans so far at the hospital, at area clinics and through online services.

“We’re ready for whatever comes about,” she said. “We’ll be right on top of it.”

A new annex housing the services is being built now over the ambulatory wing of the hospital and should be ready to open in May, according to Leland Fong, the project section chief.

“Right now the program is just scattered throughout the hospital. You have offices in one location and clinics in another location,” Fong said. “This will allow us to consolidate everything into one location including rehabilitation space and mental health clinic offices.”

That includes job counseling services and similar help, in addition to medical assistance.

“Many of these soldiers that are coming back as veterans have been deployed more than once. They are young men who basically moved into the military, guard or reserve for the purpose of getting education benefits,” Withers said. “They never dreamed that being in the guard or reserves they were going to be called up for combat at all. … It’s good money. Sometimes they just don’t have any other way of fitting in.”

Iraq and Afghanistan have been different wars because they have been fought with a smaller pool of soldiers who volunteered as opposed to being drafted or volunteering in lieu of being drafted.

That means many have done repeat tours, sometimes spending four years overseas. And they faced an enemy who could constantly harass them even on their military bases.

“I’ve had many veterans tell me over the years, they would rather have been on the road than in base. … The bases seemed so dangerous,” Whirley said. “What that means psychologically, I think, is there’s no safety. You can’t go to bed expecting to sleep all night. You can’t be up in the daytime without wearing your battle gear in most of the areas that our folks are in.”

Some World War II veterans still come to meetings in groups of around a dozen – one reason being that post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t recognized as widely then as it is now – although their numbers are dwindling rapidly nationally and locally.

Those vets produced the baby boom generation and are still the subject of what Whirley calls “clinical lore.”

“They were put to work. There were jobs available. The economy was booming along pretty well at that time. Many of them got absorbed back into life and spent 40 years working and raising families,” he said. “Some of them, after retirement, after things started calming down in life, they’ve noted some problems. If you talk to them they will tell you things that suggest they’ve always had symptoms … as a result of their war experience. But it was a different time and place I believe.”

Most veterans make the transition back to civilian life. And Whirley is anxious to see Iraq and Afghanistan veterans avoid the stereotype that attached itself to many Vietnam veterans.

“That crazy Vietnam vet stereotype has permeated, I think, our culture for many years now,” he said. “What we’re trying to get folks to understand these days, including the Vietnam vet and the Korean War vets is that recovery is an option. If you’ve got PTSD, it’s not a life sentence. It probably has been for many people.”

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