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Tampa's VA hospital reaches out to Iraq, Afghanistan veterans

TAMPA — Iraq war veteran Ken Guillion's back still hurts, even though he stopped carrying heavy .50-caliber machine guns in the Army more than a year ago.

The 29-year-old former gunner wants to start physical therapy for his chronic back pain, but the waiting list was too long at the Veteran Affairs hospital near his home in Indiana.

He's more hopeful about Tampa's services. Although he just moved to the city a week ago, he was at James A. Haley VA Medical Center's "Welcome Home America's Heroes" event Saturday to gather information about medical care he's eligible to receive.

"She pushed me to come," he said, smiling, as he pointed to his fiancee, Linda Rondon.

In a nationwide effort to reach more veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has asked its hospitals to hold welcome back events.

Only about 30 percent of veterans go to VA hospitals, and that needs to change, said Seamless Transition coordinator Steve Preston. "We'd like it at 100 percent," he said.

It's his job to help transfer veterans from military hospitals to VA hospitals.

Tampa's VA Medical Center's chief of staff, Edward Cutolo Jr., said that even though troops are told about VA services when they leave the military, many don't remember the information when they need it.

"When they're first coming home, they're not into anything other than getting back to their families," he said.

But problems sometimes arise several years later, things like post traumatic stress disorder or small injuries that become aggravated and flare up, Preston said.

It's been almost four years since James Spriggs served in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he still has a daily struggle with anxiety from four years of fighting in the 11th Airborne Infantry, he said.

"So I did it my way, which was drugs and alcohol," he said.

He spent years dependent on alcohol, and lost his wife, house, car and motorcycle.

A few months ago, Spriggs said, he woke up in a jail cell with no idea what he had done, until a judge read off about 10 charges, including driving under the influence and resisting arrest with violence.

"I'm not proud of that," he said.

So he sought out a free treatment program. Four weeks through the six-week program hosted by Tampa's VA center, he says he's living in a halfway house and no longer dependent on alcohol.

"I don't have to go out and drink to feel leveled out," he said. "I still have anxiety issues, but that's expected until I get more counseling."

He went to the event at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome to get information about other VA services, including job placement programs.

Three organizations passed out information about how to receive job counseling.

Kathryn Upham, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, said she's helped homeless veterans with no education as well as veterans with master's degrees.

"We see everyone," she said. "And we help them develop a plan."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Tampa's VA hospital reaches out to Iraq, Afghanistan veterans 03/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2008 12:15am]

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