WHITTLE THIS: Regional VA leadership questioned

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Are regional Veterans Administration officials concerned about soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with substance abuse issues?

The answer is “no,” according to a former certified counselor who retired two years ago in good standing from helping administer the program to veterans with alcohol and drug dependency issues at the highly-used York VA Medical Center.

“The veterans, and the community, have a crisis, when they recently closed housing for those returning veterans, 80 percent of whom are homeless,” charged York VA retiree Bill Mitchell of Murfreesboro.

Mitchell targets Tennessee Valley VA Healthcare Systems’ Director Juan Morales with criticism after “doors were closed at Building 11,” a building that was refurbished as recently as two years ago to serve ailing veterans with drug addictions.

In a letter directed to U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, whose 6th District currently includes York hospital, Mitchell outlined his complaints.

“The present director, Mr. Juan Morales, has unfortunately never been supportive of the Substance Abuse Treatment Program (SATP) at York Campus,” Mitchell stated. “Despite the record budgetary allocations (from the Obama Administration and Congress) to the VA, he refused to provide funding to hire more staff for that program; provide resources to address the new mandated services.”

To date, Mitchell said he’s received “no response” from Congresswoman Black or Morales.

This columnist contacted Rep. Black’s Washington office initially Tuesday for a comment.

After getting no response Tuesday from Black’s press spokesperson in Washington, a call was made Thursday attempting to get a response from Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-4th Congressional District.

If DesJarlais is re-elected in November to represent, he would be representing Rutherford County and the York VA facility in Washington.

DesJarlais’ Communications Director Robert Jameson said they would defer making a comment, since York VA currently sits in Rep. Black’s district.

“I’ve called Rep. Black’s office, and they will be in touch,” Jameson confirmed.

Rep. Black’s press secretary Stephanie Genco phoned Thursday afternoon, indicating a statement would be forthcoming. However, that statement didn’t arrive.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation at York,” Genco said after initially referring this columnist to get explanation comments from Tennessee VA spokesman Chris Alexander and Chris Conklin.

Alexander confirmed housing at Building 11 “is suspended,” but could give no date of possibly reopening the facility.

State Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Winchester, who has announced his candidacy to run for Congress in the new-reconfigured 4th District currently served by DesJarlais, issued the following statement.

“There is never a good reason to suspend housing for these veterans, none,” Stewart accounted. “It’s extremely important to keep our promises to them when they come home. No matter if it’s continuing their education, helping them find a job, providing them healthcare, or in this case, making sure they have a warm place to stay at night while they are being treated for the terrible disease of addiction. The ‘flag waving' can’t stop after the homecoming ceremony is over. Our commitment to them has to be never-ending…”

When veterans dial 867-6000 at York, they get a recorded “greeting” from Tennessee Valley VA Director Morales, but no directory telling them how to speak directly to the man-in-charge.

If a veteran is having thoughts of harming his or her self when calling 867-6000, they’re directed to a recorded number: 1-800-273-8255.

This is at a time when wartime physically-wounded and emotionally-scarred veterans are at all-time record highs in suicides due to extended tours of duty dating back to Vietnam, Desert Storm, and presently, those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is also the time when housing for veterans enrolled in the York VA’s four-week substance abuse program has been “suspended,” using the word chosen by two VA spokesmen.

It’s also at a time when 80 percent of the veterans in the program are “homeless,” according to Mitchell. “We were always under-staffed, including the past two years when the VA was appropriated its own record-high funding,” Mitchell noted. “The closure of Building 11 makes no sense, since the building itself was refurbished as recent as two years ago.

“It is inhumane to close this housing, when 80 percent of the veterans, including those coming in from Iraq and Afghanistan service to country, coming into the program are homeless?” Mitchell charged. “Before the closure, there was an average of 20 to 25 veterans enrolled for substance abuse counseling. Now, I’m told by people who still work at York VA, the number is down to four soldiers…”

The majority of veterans, he said, come out of Nashville homeless shelters.

“They take the shuttle service out of Nashville, and arrive here homeless,” Mitchell described.

“Some stay at the Salvation Army, located miles away from York’s campus, on the other side of downtown Murfreesboro,” he added. “But, they are required to leave the Army shelter, when they lock the doors from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. During that time, they’re exposed to the elements.”

Two veterans, since Building 11 was padlocked to ailing veterans, have found refuge in Murfreesboro’s Room In The Inn program, according to Inn Director Christine Huddleston.

“But, we have no more room, since we’re maxed out in capacity,” Huddleston shared. “Nothing makes me more sad than to have to turn homeless veteran men and women away in the cold…”

Huddleston was asked for a solution.

“I’ve never understood why York VA officials don’t establish a permanent shelter for homeless veterans, since they have a nice, huge campus,” Huddleston suggested. “It makes sense, since the veterans’ homeless crisis will now mushroom with the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan being brought home.”

Certified Substance Abuse Counselor Mitchell echoed that sentiment.

“About 10 years ago, the VA began monitoring soldiers coming back from war zones, and a high percentage confirmed they had substance abuse problems,” Mitchell noted. “Statistics showed in our program, before the doors were closed on housing, a high percentage of those will end up homeless, if they’re not already homeless upon arrival.

“How can this be justified in time of war?” Mitchell asked.­

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