Lolita Lopez, Tom Bravo
The number of veterans seeking treatment in the Los Angeles is expected to increase as the final U.S. troops return from Iraq.
More than 84,000 veterans sought assistance at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center last year. That number is expected to increase as American troops leave Iraq in time for 2012.
The troop withdrawal from Iraq will be complete on Dec. 31.
About 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq. More than 30,000 were wounded and nearly 4,500 were killed.
"We've been told roughly to be prepared for 40,000 to be entering the system, we figure that roughly 10 percent will end up in California," Dr. Dean Norman, Chief of Staff of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said. "Mental health and traumatic brain injury are the two things that we have to make sure that we have adequate staffing and we do."
Norman insists all returning servicemen and women should be screened for mental and brain trauma.
Along with extra staffing, there is outreach. It is not mandatory for veterans to enroll in the VA system which means many veterans lose out on benefits.
"When they return they are entitled to five years medical care, eligibility in VA and I think at least a few years of dental care," Dr. Norman said.
The Greater Los Angeles VA Chief of Mental Health Bill Daniels understands the efforts because he went through the process with his son. Daniel's son served in Iraq and left the Air Force four years ago.
"It's not just my kid, it's everybody's kid," Daniels said.
The VA Medical Center helps returning troops become self sufficient, from assisting in educational needs, mental treatment, income and job relief and stable housing.
"A veteran can come to this VA whose been seen in another VA somewhere else in the country and the provider their doctor or nurse calls it up on their screen, they have all the information they need at their fingertips," Daniels said.
The group's services are available online and by phone at 800-438-3891or 800-273-TALK.
"(We are) really encouraging veterans, family members are noticing something, call our many hotlines," Daniels said.
"While they are leaving one war they are preparing for a different battle," said Gregory Scott, president and CEO of the non-profit organization, New Directions, which assists the homeless veteran population in the city.
The group estimates there are more than 8,000 veterans on the street in LA. According to the VA, homelessness among veterans has decreased about 12 percent over the past year.
For the new crew of servicemen and women coming home, the strategies for treatment and care once designed from the Vietnam era have switched.
"We have a Facebook page, we are on Twitter and Linked In. Many of our volunteers, board members, our staff, and even our veterans are plugging into to what we we are doing on all those social media outlets," Scott said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs budget for next year will see a 10.6 percent increase from 2010 to $61.85 billion. Of that money, $6 billion will go to mental health needs, $52.5 billion in advance money for the VA medical care program in 2013 and $939 million for homeless and at risk veterans services.
Locally, they are working their resources.
"We are also looking at the way we schedule patients. We are also looking at our phone system, we are doing that today, to make sure we eliminate any barriers there are to enrollment," Dr. Norman added.
In November, President Barack Obama signed into law a bipartisan jobs bill to help the 850,000 unemployed veterans in the U.S. find employment. The law offers tax credits to businesses who hire veterans.
Starting this month, veterans can use the VA's online My HealtheVet portal (www.myhealth.va.gov) to see official information about their military service, including deployment data, in-uniform experience, and Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes which define the type of work performed and skills learned during their tour of duty.
Veterans can electronically download that information to their personal computers. This new capability is the latest addition to the job-hunting tools announced by President Obama on Nov. 14.