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Returning Vets Find A Warmer Welcome Medically Than Their Vietnam Counterparts


February 17, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

After five months, Lt. Col. T.J. Farrell was coming home after overseeing a POW camp in Iraq as commander of Fort's Lauderdale Army reserve unit.

As he stepped onto U.S. soil, however, he learned he had a final assignment -- a rigorous medical checkup, including filling out a five-page questionnaire on where he had served in Iraq and what ailments he'd suffered.

''If you have any health concerns,'' Farrell said, ``they will find them.''

With 100,000 troops returning to the States over the next few weeks -- the most since World War II -- Uncle Sam is trying to make right what previous veterans said the government did wrong, namely glossing over medical problems and ignoring the strains of returning to civilian life.

''You would be in Vietnam one day and you'd be on a plane and be back home within 24 to 48 hours,'' said Dr. John Vara, chief of staff at the Miami VA Medical Center.

This time, VA medical centers are setting up special teams around the nation to handle returning troops -- they're entitled to two years' free care -- and sponsoring programs to help the vets re-enter civilian life. The Miami VA Medical Center has set up its own clinic for the Iraq war veterans.

Ensuring a smooth return is more acute this time around, as many of the troops are reservists and National Guard members like Farrell, who never thought they would be engaged in combat duty, but were plucked after Sept. 11 to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The military has a vested interest in keeping them happy -- once-a-month soldiers are part of the federal government's strategy in fighting future wars.

Veterans' health care is an issue that resonates in Florida: The Sunshine State, with 1.9 million veterans, is second only to California in the number of vets who reside in the state.

At his Tampa home, Farrell, 45, was relieved that doctors agreed with him that he wasn't suffering physically or emotionally. Farrell commanded the U.S. Army's 724th Military Police Battalion, based out of Fort Lauderdale.

''I'm fine -- there are no issues,'' said Farrell, who had never been in a war before.

He's on a 30-day, paid government leave before returning to work as a financial advisor at Charles Schwab. He's using the time to reacquaint himself with his wife, Maria, and their three children: T.J. Jr., 20, Kelly, 17, and Kristin, 14.

''He's doing great,'' Maria said. ``He's readjusting -- every day is easier.''

That's not always the case.

Fidel González, assigned to direct the special clinic at the Miami VA Medical Center, said he has treated returning veterans for nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety attacks. He has seen about 20 veterans -- with about 500 to return in the weeks ahead.

The older ones, such as Farrell, have fared the best, González said. ''A lot of them have dealt pretty well with the stresses of war,'' he said, attributing their readjustment to their maturity.

Many of the younger ones, he noted, still feel anxious from being engaged in a guerrilla war.

As one female soldier back from Iraq told González, ``I prayed every day when I went out on patrol so I would come back.''

That anxiety is hard to shake. Mario Vega, 27, a North Miami national guardsman in the Army's first battalion, 124th infantry, said he has had flashbacks, ''sweating nightmares'' and sometimes wakes up screaming since returning in November. A bomb exploded near him last August and injured his eyes and right eardrum.

Vega said the VA counseling is helping. He also noted how the VA doctors in Miami found the cause of his eye pain -- debris that Army doctors did not find.

''They have treated me respectfully, almost like a VIP,'' Vega said.

That's in sharp contrast to how Vietnam vets were treated when they returned. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn't explored until after the Vietnam War. In 1989, the VA set up the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

''There was nothing like this when I came back,'' said Bernie Duven, a Vietnam vet working for the Veterans Administration who recently spoke at a seminar on the transition to civilian life.

The Miami VA Center, which includes eight clinics in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward, also is helping the severely wounded rebuild their lives.

''At the beginning I couldn't do anything,'' Army Staff Sgt. John Quincy Adams, 37, of Miramar said slowly. His speech and motor skills were permanently affected by the shrapnel lodged in his brain after a bomb exploded near him last summer.

Government doctors and therapists have taught him to walk and speak again. He attends therapy twice a week.

''They've been very attentive to us,'' said his wife, Verlorene, who is nicknamed Summer.

Another critically wounded soldier, U.S. Army Spc. Luis Angel Calderon, 23, is a quadriplegic who praises the VA Medical Center for helping him get off a ventilator.

''Now they've got me breathing on my own,'' said Calderon, who is from Puerto Rico.

Working with the staff, he has been able to get in a wheelchair, which he pushed six feet on his own.

Doctors think he may be able to go home in the weeks ahead. Members of the hospital staff have been to his home to make sure it is handicapped accessible.

''His health care has been great -- we have had no problems,'' said his father, Luis Calderon, who, with his wife, moved from Puerto Rico and took a job as an electrician at the VA Medical Center to be near his son.

The government also is looking out for soldiers who have less severe physical problems that could have an impact over a lifetime.

Army Specialist Vilmarie McDougall, 35, a reservist, is being treated for a Middle Eastern fungus infection she got as a mechanic in Kuwait. The infection has affected her breathing. ''I've got something real bad,'' she said. She wound up in intensive care. While she has improved, she says she is too weak to work or look after her 10-year-old son, Shawn Wortham. The VA Medical Center is helping her apply for disability.

Her case is unusual. In Vietnam, troops tended to come down with malaria or other infectious diseases, but in the two Gulf Wars, most of the returning soldiers with medical concerns have had muscular-skeletal problems, such as knee or ankle injuries, said Dr. Michael E. Kilpatrick, a deputy director in the U.S. Department of Defense.

''Our troops are much more mobile, so there's all that wear and tear on joints,'' he said.

Now that he's home, Farrell advises other returning troops to spend some time alone. His wife concurs, saying he is more introspective.

He relishes his time with her and their children, she said.

``He doesn't take anything for granted anymore.''

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