Most veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan do not receive regular care at Veterans Affairs hospitals for their physical and emotional wounds. Now there’s a push to make sure all health care providers are better prepared to serve their patients who are vets.
When Camden native Drew Bendler returned from Iraq a few years ago, he struggled to adjust to civilian life. He turned to drinking, but wasn’t aware he had a problem. “My problem with my denial was my isolation,” he recalled.
He felt alone in what he had experienced, and didn’t know where to turn for help. It’s easy to forget that 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Gala True.
“It’s very compartmentalized in terms of what Americans understand, what these veterans had been through, people are easily able to forget,” said True, a researcher with the VA and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
True, who is researching barriers that prevent vets from getting care, wants to help health care providers serve this population better. She recently published research that speaks to the disconnect between soldiers’ war time and civilian identities, and their struggles to reconnect to their civilian lives.
True collaborated with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to create narratives using photos and audio. Together with veterans, she’s using those materials to talk to groups of providers and help others understand the health impacts of war and unmet medical needs.
“All the questions afterward are aimed to the veterans,” said True. “Providers want to know, what is a good interaction … ‘if I meet a veteran who is in denial, how can I deal with that?'”
Doctors must work to get to know their veteran patients, Bendler said.
“The health care provider needs to win the hearts and minds of the soldier that needs the treatment,” he said. “I mean, once you find out that veteran’s experience, say ‘Hey, glad to be home? Thank you for your service ”goes a long way.”
Sometimes, issues such as “trouble sleeping” can open the doors to broader discussions about alcohol use and mental health problems, True said.
“That’s a doorway to dealing with the bigger issues,” she said. “The provider may have to say to them, ‘I know you’re sleepless, but I’m concerned about your alcohol use here and, by the way, drinking excessively can actually mess up your sleep’, the veteran will understand that.”