By Sara Castellanos
Veterans in Colorado with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have needs that aren't being met by the current VA system, members of a newly-created PTSD task force said April 22 at their inaugural meeting at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Members of the task force said they have to eliminate the stigma of PTSD, educate more veterans about PTSD resources and speed up PTSD claims for veterans needing help. Finding jobs for veterans with PTSD is also difficult, members of the group said, and female veterans who have been sexually assaulted aren't seeking help and veteran suicide rates are high.
The task force, created by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., will propose solutions to those problems within the next eight months.
"Our goal is to, by the end of the year, have a document that is concise and backed up with good factual data and anecdotal examples to present to Udall and Coffman," said Arapahoe County Commissioner Bill Holen, chairman of the task force.
PTSD is common among veterans, especially those who serve in wars overseas. According to the federal government's Veterans Affairs department, up to 11 percent of Afghanistan war veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, and up to 20 percent of Iraq war veterans have PTSD.
Coffman, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said he started the task force with Udall in hopes of addressing issues related to PTSD in the military.
"The No. 1 claim for disability right now is PTSD, and it's enormous," he said. "I don't see us making any progress on it as a country, so I'm hoping to assemble people here in a bipartisan way to see if they can come up with recommendations that we can take back to Washington."
The task force's recommendations could have a significant impact on Aurora, since estimates show the city has about 32,000 veterans.
"Aurora is a military town and we have a large concentration of veterans that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan," Coffman said. "I think it's going to be very important for this community."
At the April 22 meeting, the task force divided up into three subcommittees: one that will look at current PTSD treatments and identify any gaps, a second that will look at how to improve PTSD treatment and reduce the amount of time it takes for veterans to get PTSD disability claims, and a third that will research how the different branches of military are handling PTSD and what programs they offer active military members.
Aurora Veterans Affairs Commissioner Bernie Rogoff, a Korean War veteran who attended the task force meeting, said he hopes the group doesn't lose sight of what it hopes to accomplish in the coming months.
He said he wants to see tangible results.
"This is long overdue," he said.
U.S. Army veteran Izzy Abbass, a member of the task force, said he's committed to proposing concrete solutions for veterans with PTSD. One of his main goals is to help reduce the stigma of PTSD among military members.
"We're slowly making inroads to reducing the stigma attached to it, but there's still a long way to go," he said.
He said one of the reasons many veterans don't take advantage of mental health services after being sexually assaulted in the military is because they fear retaliation. That needs to change, he said.
According to the VA's mental health website, national data shows that one in five women and one in 100 men have experienced military sexual trauma.
The Joint Task Force on PTSD is comprised of 12 members, including Jennifer Anderson, manager of the state's Traumatic Brain Injury Program, U.S. Army veteran Jason Crow, who helped lobby for the new VA Medical Center in Aurora, and Dr. Richard Rewey, a reserve psychiatrist for the U.S. Army Medical Corp.