Remove stigma so more veterans get help for head injuries

For more than two centuries, America's brave men and women have answered the call of service, defending the freedoms of this great nation. In doing so, they have made great sacrifices, including time away from family, physical injury and loss of life.

The effects of war, though, are not always evident. Head injuries are the signature, and often invisible, wounds of our recent wars. These injuries are not a sign of weakness or a character flaw, but rather the potential catalyst of more serious illnesses such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who received VA health care in the decade after 2001 were diagnosed with PTSD, and the numbers are only expected to climb.

Members of our armed forces live by a creed that encourages dedication, teamwork and commitment. This unified spirit encourages them to support one another — no matter the elements or the personal harm that may occur. Sadly, it also results in some not seeking the treatment to ensure that these injuries don't develop into more serious conditions.

As vice chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee and co-chairman of the Military Veterans Caucus, I am working with my colleagues to tear down the stigma surrounding head injuries to ensure that our service members get the care they need. Together, we must create a culture that encourages our service members to seek treatment and take time to heal.

Veterans' care must be comprehensive, addressing both physical and mental health needs. Unfortunately, because of inequities in the law, treatment for brain injuries often solely focuses on physical restoration, overlooking the critical mental health component.

To better address veterans' long-term recovery and success, I have and will continue to support legislation to clarify the definition of rehabilitation and to ensure that veterans' care adequately addresses both physical and mental health needs. I have also participated in numerous committee hearings with the VA, where we focused on mental health care and how the Department of Defense and the VA can better address these issues.

We must also ensure that all veterans have timely access to quality care in their communities, particularly in situations of TBI and PTSD. This care should include specialized treatment through innovative approaches, such as age-appropriate recreational rehabilitation for our most severely injured veterans.

Last year, I brought NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin and members of Congress together to discuss TBI and PTSD so we could find ways to further our research efforts and change the culture among our soldiers, veterans and athletes.

Together, the NFL and the Army have made great strides to promote early diagnosis by coupling their research and encouraging soldiers and athletes to seek treatment. While they have come a long way, there is still much that can be done on both the football field and the battlefield.

As we mark PTSD Awareness Month, we must come together to address these important issues. Whether it's raising awareness for these illnesses or helping someone you know seek treatment for their injuries, we can draw attention to the real dangers head injuries present and encourage our service members to get the help they need.

Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis, a Republican, represents Florida's 12th District in the U.S. Congress. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Remove stigma so more veterans get help for head injuries 06/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 6:11pm]

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