Editors Note: This four-day series looks at the experiences of returning veterans and the challenges they face.
By Katie Burford
Herald City Editor
To understand war's impact on service members, one need only look at the numbers.
In La Plata County, veterans represent less than 1 percent of the population, but they were 28 percent of the crisis clients served through the Crossroads mental-health facility in Grandview in the last year and about 16 percent of adults at the homeless shelter in Durango.
Though few other statistics on local veterans exist, people working with them believe we are at the outset of a surge in demand as new vets pour into a system already taxed to capacity.
The amount being spent by the Department of Veterans Affairs on benefits bears this out: In fiscal year 2000, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the agency spent about $3 million in La Plata County. By fiscal year 2011, that number had more than quadrupled, to about $16 million, or about $3,500 per living vet.
More dire yet is the agency's own admission that this amount will continue to grow exponentially.
“History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in an April 19 news release announcing the deployment of 1,600 additional mental-health clinicians to VA facilities around the country.
This, too, is likely to be inadequate.
An unsigned letter provided to a visiting congressman this spring said the local VA clinic, which serves about 2,000 veterans, had a psychiatrist available only 12 days per month.
“The limit per psychiatrist is 900 (patients) ... so clearly we meet the threshold for a (full-time) provider,” the letter states.
The manager of the Durango VA clinic agreed to be interviewed, but later had an assistant cancel the interview and did not respond to calls to reschedule.
Sonja Brown, a regional spokeswoman for the VA, said there are no specific plans to increase mental-health staff at the Durango clinic.
“While it is too early to commit, there is a good possibility that additional mental health (services) will be placed (in Durango),” she wrote in an email.
While mental-health services are a major need for vets, health care, disability coverage, education, housing and jobs also are expected to be growing needs.
Rich Schleeter, who, as the veterans service officer, puts in long days ensuring vets are getting connected to services, said if there were two of him, it would still fall short of the demand he is seeing.
“There's a lot of people coming home right now,” said Schleeter, who served in both Iraq wars.
The long van ride
The VA clinic in Durango, which is run by a contractor, does not provide much more than primary care. For most specialized care, veterans must go elsewhere, usually to Albuquerque. An intricate system run mostly by volunteers has developed to get them there.
The Disabled American Veterans van makes twice weekly trips from Durango to Albuquerque. Drivers are volunteers, many of them veterans. For vets to make their appointments, the van leaves before sunrise, often 5 a.m., and doesn't return until 5 or 6 p.m.
“It's a long, hard trip,” said Charlie Parnell, a volunteer who coordinates the service.
Vans also run from Farmington, Cortez and Pagosa Springs.
Limited money is available to pay driving costs if a vet isn't able to take the van. Although the VA provides some temporary housing for vets in Albuquerque for treatment, this often isn't sufficient.
Most vets interviewed for this story reported being quite happy with the service they received in Albuquerque, but agreed getting there is a hardship.
The VA centralizes its services based on the belief that vets need a panoply of services at their disposal to thrive. But Schleeter said the arrangement is hard on vets in mostly rural areas because they must choose between being close to their families or close to services.
Efforts to bring more services to La Plata County have had limited success.
Jennifer Lopez, executive director of the Regional Housing Alliance, helped put together a proposal earlier this year to build a veteran-specific housing project in Durango with a grant through the VA.
She said “the wraparound model” that the agency espouses made putting together a viable proposal difficult because many of the ancillary services it would entail aren't available here. Proponents were optimistic, though, after finding a parcel of city land that was ideally situated near Manna Soup Kitchen, the homeless shelter and public transportation. But the proposal ultimately fell victim to another VA reality: lack of funding. This spring, Lopez learned the grant they were applying for had been discontinued.
But advocates aren't done.
Sarada Leavenworth, division director for Volunteers of America, which operates the local homeless shelter and was a partner with the housing alliance on the earlier grant, said they are seeking a different VA grant that would enhance the shelter's ability to connect vets with services and move them toward self-sufficiency.
While the proposal is more modest than a housing project, Leavenworth said it would give advocates an opportunity to learn more about the local veteran population and make a case for additional resources.
She said advocates already are learning that returning vets are different from older vets: more are women, and children are often in the mix.
While veterans make up a significant portion of her client population, they aren't a big part of the general population, which can make them invisible.
“It's so easy not to think about this,” she said.
And veterans, whose service was founded on strength and pride, are often loathe to ask to for help. For them to accept help, Leavenworth said, it has to be easy and it has to be done in a way that allows them to maintain their dignity.