Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury have become the signature ailments among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New Hampshire Legislative Commission on PTSD and TBI released a report in 2014 that looked at how many veterans in the state had these injuries and whether they felt they were getting the help they needed.
Colonel Richard Oberman recently became the chairman of the Legislative Commission on PTSD and TBI. He’s also Deputy State Surgeon and Commander of Clinical Services with the New Hampshire Army National Guard. He spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about the commission’s work.
It’s been a few years since that first report came out. You’re just a couple of weeks on the job now as the chair of the commission. How do things look now? Are we better off now than we were in 2014?
I absolutely think we are. We’ve done a lot of community education from civilians, businesses, and providers. We’ve established collaborations with not only the VAs, but our community partners. If you look at the membership on the commission, it’s very broad, and has experts on both sides of PTSD and TBI, as well as veterans' groups and those representatives so that we don’t lose touch into what our veterans feel, what they’re experiencing, and what they need.
The commission is now re-interviewing, if you will, by questionnaire veterans to find out: Did we hit the mark? Did we do the right thing? And where do we go from here? And that’s kind of what, as the new chair coming in, that’s kind of where I need that information to really figure out what direction we’re going to go in. Because if we go in Colonel Oberman’s direction, that may not be the direction our veterans need. I’m only one veteran, right? So I think that’s where we’re going to get the biggest bang for our buck, and in order to do that, I need veterans to respond. I need them to answer the question.
So what tools are at your disposal if you, let’s say, get the survey back and there‘s a high proportion of veterans who have PTSD and/or TBI and are in need of some kind of help with that? What tools are at the commission’s disposal to help those veterans get what they need?
The commission itself has no funding. There’s no set budget for a commission. We have to rely on those community resources: our VA, vet centers, and those community partners. So the people in the community that care for veterans are primarily civilian providers, so we have to assist the veteran in getting the care where they can.
Plus it’s a veteran’s choice. Not every veteran wants to go to the VA or is in the area convenient to go to a local VA, so there is Veterans Choice as well. It really comes down to assessing the needs of each individual. Now as a commission, it’s hard to do that, which is why we have to look at things in a global perspective, and how we can improve veterans’ access for everybody.
Is your hope that the information that comes out of this survey will motivate those partners that you speak of, or perhaps lawmakers, to help create some of the resources that veterans may say the need?
Absolutely. We can’t go in a direction unless we know what direction that’s going to be. If we need to propose legislation, then that’s what the commission is there to do. If we need to convey information to educate communities and specific providers in the community, then that’s what we’ve done in the past and we’ll continue to go down that road. If we find that all the education that we’ve done doesn’t appear to be translating into veterans’ healthcare, we have to sit back and reassess why did that happen, and what do we need to change and how do we need to move forward.
You’re just begun your work as the chairman of the State Commission on PTSD and TBI, but you’ve been on it as a member, so you’ve been involved in this. How bad is the problem of veterans living with PTSD and TBI in New Hampshire?
On average there’s about 11, depending on which census you use, there’s anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of veterans that have a diagnosis of PTSD. TBI, it runs about the same: 11 to 22 percent, at least OEF/OIF. But what that doesn’t tell you is the percentage that is actually being affected; their daily lives are being affected from PTSD or TBI in a negative fashion.
The reason I say that is a lot of people are diagnosed with any type of disease process, but that doesn’t mean it’s affecting their ability to work, or their ability to have a relationship, or their ability to do things in their daily life. I would venture to say that a majority of people with the diagnosis of PTSD and TBI you would never know. And that’s our hope. We don’t want people to be categorized as, “Oh, you’re a veteran, so you must have PTSD.” That is far from the truth. And if you do have PTSD, that doesn’t mean you can’t do things.
In the state of New Hampshire, the number of people with diabetes is 11 percent. But if you walk in and say, “I am a civilian,” I don’t automatically assume, “Oh, you’re a civilian, you must have diabetes,” right? So we don’t want that stigma of our veterans or of our soldiers with PTSD or a TBI. We want everyone to be treated as, “You’re a veteran, you served our country. Thank you.” And we want you to be able to be hire-able, and we want you to have a good quality of life like we all have of citizens in New Hampshire.