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Tampa Bay area veterans group to resume therapy

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs agreed this week to reinstate group therapy for 11 battle-scarred Vietnam veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The decision came after U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, intervened on behalf of the Tampa Bay area veterans and after a March 11 St. Petersburg Times story detailed their plight.

Brown-Waite ironed out a compromise with the veterans and VA officials Monday. In two months, she said, the VA will re-evaluate whether the sessions are making progress.

The agency stressed that it was placing no time limits on the sessions held at a VA outpatient clinic in New Port Richey. The men could conceivably meet for years more, the VA said.

The agency also said it would provide individual counseling to the 11 veterans.

"The VA will continue to monitor the progress of the group and each individual to ensure individual needs are addressed and goals are met," the VA said in a statement.

The men — called Group 11 by the VA — met weekly until November, when their sessions were abruptly canceled.

Why remains murky. The men said their counselor told them the VA was inundated with veterans needing help, suggesting the agency didn't have the resources to continue Group 11.

But in a letter, the VA told the veterans they had obtained the "maximum therapeutic benefit" from the sessions.

Group 11 members, who had continued meeting at an area restaurant without a counselor, were overjoyed with the VA's reversal. They said they have formed strong bonds through three years of weekly meetings at the VA, helping each other deal with the war's emotional aftereffects and the problems of everyday life.

"We're pleased, and we're shocked," said Charlie Kelley, 64, a Marine veteran and bay area resident. "Ginny Brown-Waite deserves credit for getting us a fair shake."

Veterans advocates have said that group therapy sessions have been cut elsewhere nationally as the VA deals with more veterans needing care for PTSD.

But Brown-Waite, a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said Tuesday that VA officials reassured her they have adequate resources.

She thought the compromise with the Group 11 veterans was fair, but said the agency could have handled the matter better.

"I thought it was very abrupt to say at the end of a session, 'Oh, by the way, you're not going to be a group anymore,' '' Brown-Waite said.

The VA said it offered treatment alternatives to the veterans when it announced the end of the group, but the men complained the choices were poor.

The veterans, for example, were offered another group session that met at 8 a.m., a difficult time for veterans who commonly suffer sleep disorders.

"If these gentlemen have sleep problems and nightmares, why in God's name would you schedule a meeting at 8 o'clock?" Brown-Waite said. "It would have set them up for failure."

After Group 11 was disbanded, members wrote a letter to the VA: "We have all tried to deal with this devastating event as best we could.

"But we have come to realize that the group was our main line of defense."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or
(813) 226-3436.

Tampa Bay area veterans group to resume therapy 04/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 10:44am]
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