Eagle County’s housing, mental health woes leave veterans without resources | VailDaily.com

Eagle County’s housing, mental health woes leave veterans without resources

Kirsten Dobroth
Special to the Daily

last Monday, I attended a yoga class at Colorado Mountain College's Edwards campus with complimentary coffee and doughnuts afterwards at the invitation of Pat Hammon, Eagle County's Veterans Services officer, who was recently appointed to the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The class is one of such events organized by Hammon aimed at getting together some of Eagle County's 2,300 veterans, who span across generations of service from World War II to those just leaving active duty. I had the opportunity to talk to Hammon, who served in the Vietnam War as a nurse, along with other attendees from the Air Force, Army and Marines, to gain perspective on life after service, their hopes for the next generation of veterans and the struggles of adequately serving a veteran population in a rural area.

Addressing the obstacles

While the county has plenty of outdoor opportunities that help with the transition process of coming home, cities and areas near military bases typically see larger numbers of veterans due to their proximity to medical care at facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans do have access to medical care with providers outside of the Veterans Health Administration system via the Veterans Choice Program, which was signed into law in 2014 and is part of the TriWest Healthcare Alliance in 28 states in the western part of the country.

The law isn't without its problems, however, as long wait times and administrative confusion over overlapping care have continued to dog the bill, which cost $10 billion. In an investigative series into the veterans' health overhaul by National Public Radio called "Back to Base," NPR identified lack of timely payments to providers and backlogged phone systems as some of the problems Veterans Choice enrollees often encounter.

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The results have had a ripple effect here in Eagle County; most local providers don't accept Veterans Choice plans.

That lack of choice pushes veterans back into the Veterans Affairs system, most often hours away in Denver or Grand Junction, which makes care unattainable to many due to transportation issues. Changing policy in regards to veterans' services could throw more cold water on access to care; according to figures from Rand Corp., a global policy think tank, 3 million veterans enrolled in the Veterans Affairs currently get their health care from different sources — employers, or Affordable Care Act exchanges, for instance — and uncertainty about the market in today's political climate might affect that coverage.

If those plans are adversely affected, then that could push more veterans back into the Veterans Affairs system, which is already overwhelmed and wouldn't be able to take on more staff because of the federal hiring freeze. Stuck in the middle are millions of vets who deserve care after serving their country, and those in Eagle County aren't immune from the problem.

Answering the need

Talk at our yoga and coffee meet-up turned to privatization — a common alternative that's floated when discussing overhauling veterans' services. Not all are on board, however. Along with uncertainty about costs and coverage, there's some worry that throwing veterans into a system not designed for the specific niche of mental and physical health so crucial for those returning from war might leave similar holes in care.

As we pondered what steps would need to be taken to address problems, I asked the group of veterans, who mostly served in the Vietnam War era, what their hope was for the current generation of servicemen and women returning from war.

"Mental health," they answered in unison.

Currently, according to numbers from Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide nationwide each day, with 65 percent of that statistic referring to veterans older than 50. In Eagle County, mental health care for the general population is already hard to come by, making mental health services for veterans even tougher to access.

Hammon explained that this lack of access can often be surprising for those relocating to Eagle County after service and can leave veterans in need of more specialized services with nowhere to go.

"The closest bed available for someone who needs help with substance abuse is in South Dakota," she said, "And there's no shelters in Eagle County for me to temporarily give someone a place to live while they're trying to find housing."

As Eagle County's only Veterans Services officer — the number of which depends on the veteran population — Hammon's service as a networker helps distribute resources and connect military members and their families with the right organization for everything from hearing aids to enrolling in classes at Colorado Mountain College to finding support groups with other veterans.

"Some people don't need services, some don't want services, and some don't even know that they're eligible for Veterans Services, so part of my work is outreach," she said. "Some things are easy and some things are not. Denver has thousands of veterans and Grand Junction has thousands of veterans and they have lots of resources, whereas Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties are kind of stuck in the middle and don't have that many resources, so we need to get creative; luckily, we have an amazing community."

Hammon gets assistance in outreach from a vast network of local organizations, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Mind Springs Heath, Vail Charitable Fund and Swift Eagle Charitable Foundation, among some that she ticked off. The Western Slope Veterans Coalition also helps organize events and provides assistance with an emergency fund. More support, however, is always welcome.

Creating bridges

Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek, who is also an Army veteran, said Hammon's efforts to reach out to fellow veterans are invaluable and her recent appointment to the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs is an important step for vets in rural areas.

"Now that's she's been appointed to the governor's board, we have a voice in the capitol," he said.

Van Beek also echoed another sentiment that was expressed in between sips of coffee at Monday's meeting: that more needs to be done both to improve dialogue between military and nonmilitary members of the community and to help the transition process for veterans coming home, particularly in terms of de-stigmatizing mental health.

"It's hard for someone who hasn't been in the situation to understand the magnitude of how different parts of military service can weigh on someone," he said. "There seems to be more awareness of it, but more awareness doesn't mean it's getting better."

Understanding and appreciating the skills the military gives to service members is an important step that strengthens community support for those returning from war and also leads to better employment opportunities. Part of that comes with understanding how the military operates and the importance and sacrifice of those who serve both overseas and at home.

Part of that understanding also comes from giving credit where it's due, as some returning veterans often take the brunt of public opinion, as opposed to gratitude for their service.

"All veterans and everyone coming back are due respect," Van Beek said. "It doesn't mean that they're entitled — they've earned it."

While more resources hopefully will grow with the population, that last step is an important one that can be taken today. For more information about Eagle County's Veterans Services, head to the Veterans Services page at eaglecounty.us or call 970-328-9674.

Finding support

Eagle County Veterans Services can help with:

• Health care

• Pensions

• Training and education

• Home loans

• Life insurance

• Burial and memorial benefits

• Reserve and National Guard

• Transition assistance

• Appeals of Veterans Affairs claims decisions

• Military records and medals

• Dependents and survivor health care

• Dependents and survivor benefits

Veterans Crisis Line is a free, confidential hotline for veterans who need mental health support. Call 1-800-273-8255.