Groundbreaking marks VA mental-health center

The Helena Independent Record

by Martin Kidston

FORT HARRISON — Gripping golden shovels, a team of health care providers broke ground Tuesday on a $6.7 million facility that will allow veterans to receive long-term mental-health care without having to leave Montana.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, joined the team of doctors and directors on the grounds of the VA hospital, opening a chapter of care that officials say will greatly improve the mental-health needs of Montana’s vets.

“By doing this, we’ll be taking a few important steps in fulfilling the promises made to Montana’s and America’s veterans,” Tester said. “Access to quality health care, no matter where you live, is important.”

Under the current system of treatment, Montana veterans needing inpatient psychological care for post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or depression must travel to Idaho, Wyoming or North Dakota.

While the new 24-bed, 24,000-square-foot facility won’t open until the spring of 2011, the anticipation is already great, and the treatment center, officials said, is long overdue.

Dr. Rosa Merino, chief of behavioral health with the VA Montana Health Care System, said the risk for chronic PTSD increases greatly with the intensity and length of combat.

Merino noted that between 11 and 20 percent of combat vets are likely to develop PTSD. Depression rates can run as high as 20 percent among war-tested troops. Individuals with PTSD are 15 times as likely to attempt suicide, she added.

“The stress of combat and the stress of living with the potential threat of harm or death can leave permanent scars,” Merino said. “Recovery doesn’t erase the trauma. It just makes it easier to deal with.”

Once open, the facility will focus on recovery, reintegration and rehabilitation. The center will be open around the clock and employ up to 40 people, including doctors and nurses. But more important, Merino said, it will provide hope to troubled veterans, their families and the community at large. The VA can make a difference in the lives of those it cares for, she said.

“Unlike veterans who returned from Vietnam with no answers, all veterans can turn to the VA with an expectation to receive answers, to receive treatment and to receive support,” Merino said. Over the past two years, PTSD and traumatic brain injury among veterans have become the focus of congressional members, including those from Montana.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and Tester have all introduced and passed legislation this past year to improve the long-term needs of returning troops.

Montana’s congressional delegation also has introduced and passed measures to mandate mental-health screenings before and after deployment while making health care more available and convenient to vets living in rural states like Montana.

Here at home, the new treatment center at Fort Harrison stands out as the most visible improvement to the system. It’s also one that Robin Korogi, the new director for the VA Montana Health Care System, is happy to embrace. “When this gets built, veterans can stay in the community and not have to go to another facility where they have no family support,” Korogi said. “They’ll be able to get their health care here, and have that family support.”

The multimillion-dollar project, awarded to Pacific North LLC, will be managed by Ammon Grant. Grant, an Iraq veteran, praised the Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Initiative for helping companies like his win jobs and hire vets to complete them.

“I’m grateful for the program the (Small Business Administration) has set forth to stimulate jobs and help find a place for those who have worn helmets, so potentially they can wear a hard hat on a job site,” Grant said.

Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, a former Marine and longtime advocate for improving veteran care, praised those who were helped bring the new treatment center to Montana.

“We have over 100,000 veterans in here in Montana, and that represents a little more than 11 percent of our state’s population,” Bohlinger said. “How wonderful it is that now we’ll have a facility like this that will care for their mental-health needs.”