VA in good shape locally

Local veterans and doctors say there needs to be more education on PTSD

Joel Ramirez

Joel Ramirez

Photo By Tom Angel

Joel Ramirez is a 23-year-old Butte College student who served in the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines and was a member of one of the first units in Iraq when the war started in March 2003.

Ramirez was injured when he was hit by a piece of shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad, leaving a small scar on his right cheek. He also has mild sclerosis in his right shoulder, which is a hardening of the tendons from general wear-and-tear.

While Ramirez didn’t suffer any major combat injuries, he said that when he returned in June he and other returning soldiers were encouraged to go through the transitional process at a VA outpatient clinic.

“You’re told about it, and it’s there,” he said. “It’s kind of a process, but once you’re in, you’re in.”

He said the process of getting “in the system” involves meeting with a representative, who directs veterans to a local VA facility, where their medical records with their injuries are checked and a basic physical is administered.

Ramirez said injuries are rated in percentage points from 1 to 100, with 100 being most severe. He said a doctor won’t give approval to get in the system if injuries are not severe.

Ramirez now serves as the financial officer on the Board of Directors at the Veteran Executive Committee to Organize Rehabilitative Service (VECTORS), a non-profit group that assists veterans going through difficult times.

He said he has worked with Vietnam and Desert Storm vets, as well as a handful who served between wars, who claim to suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder.

“They think they have to have a case of PTSD to get in the system, but they really don’t,” Ramirez said.

However, some vets don’t even know they suffer from the disorder, Ramirez added, because PTSD can begin to materialize with less dramatic symptoms such as binge drinking.

Steve Henderson

Photo By Tom Angel

“There needs to be more education for PTSD,” Ramirez said. “Not just for the veterans, but also for their families.”

PTSD can be severely debilitating. Take the case of Steve Henderson, whom we found standing outside the Chico VA Outpatient Clinic smoking a cigarette and waiting for a doctor’s note that would get him out of serving jury duty. Henderson, who served in Vietnam, said that because of PTSD he couldn’t handle a full day of sitting in a confined area.

“I don’t want to end up getting up and walking out of court,” Henderson said.

When asked how his treatment had been over the years, Henderson replied with a sincere, “They try their best.”

Henderson has been coming to the newer Chico clinic for a couple of years now and says he’s found it difficult at times to get appointments.

“We’ve got nice facilities now, but it don’t do no good if there aren’t any doctors,” he said.

In fact, says Karen Pridmore, public-affairs officer for the VA’s Northern California Health Care System, the system has grown rapidly in the last decade, adding new facilities and repairing and renovating older ones.

“We’ve grown so quickly in the last 10 years,” Pridmore said. “And with this new group of veterans we will continue to grow.”

VA patients have a strong sense of entitlement, noted Gregory H. Nelson, Ph.D., a mental-health team leader at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Redding, adding that there will always be people who feel they’re not getting proper treatment.

Nelson said a rise in PTSD is likely among veterans resulting from the war in Iraq but added that the Department of Veterans Affairs is the leader in PTSD research.

“It’s a good time to be a veteran from the point of view of the public and the VA hospitals,” said Nelson, who added that the Chico VA Outpatient Clinic had just hired its first full-time psychiatrist.

The Chico VA Outpatient Clinic currently serves 6,000 active patients and has about 30 employees.