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  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Staff Sgt. Kelly Strong has leaned on his wife, Kornelia, to survive years of struggle since returning from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. "Now, you're going to find out what kind of soldier's wife you're going to be," she recalls telling herself. "We went through everything together." Now, she's getting help from a new federal program for caregivers of injured veterans.

  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Kelly Strong, a veteran of the Iraq War.

The Conversation: New help for our wounded warriors

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 24, 2013 - 9:01 pm

Join the Conversation:

Should post-9/11 veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan receive more benefits and services than veterans of previous wars?

To comment, please use our comments section at the end of the story or go our facebook page at www.facebook.com/sacramentobee.

Kornelia Strong kept her promise to be a loyal soldier's wife.

She stayed steadfast after her husband, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Kelly Strong, returned from 13 months in Iraq a changed man. She persevered through all his travails: five car wrecks, the $30,000 in savings he somehow lost, public displays of anger and private meltdowns. She endured what her husband calls his "lost" years in the "depths of hell."

After being diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, he's slowly getting better with medication and intensive therapy.

And now, she's getting a helping hand, too.

She's among the first in Northern California accepted into a new federal program that provides more aid to families of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were seriously injured in the line of duty and who need help with daily living or require close supervision. Kornelia, who quit her job as a preschool teacher, says if she couldn't stay at home, she'd miss the warning signs that her husband is descending back into his personal hell.

"This is a challenge you deal with every day," she says.

The Veterans Affairs caregiver support program gives stipends of as much as $2,000 a month, plus health insurance and travel expenses. For the Strongs, the stipend takes the pressure off making their house payment and covering other living expenses.

"It was like a godsend for us," she says.

It is a blessing not available to all veterans. Those injured in the line of duty after 9/11 also get enhanced educational and health care benefits that other vets don't receive.

We're rightly paying more attention to the needs of veterans and their loved ones on the home front. There are many reasons the extra help makes sense – brain injury and PTSD are common among Iraq and Afghanistan vets and require the hands-on care that loved ones can provide.

Still, it doesn't seem quite fair that newer vets and their families get so much more aid than veterans of our nation's earlier conflicts.

"We still can't forget we have veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War," says LeRoy Acosta, a former Marine who lives in San Diego and is California commander of Disabled American Veterans. "We're concerned that benefits be available to all vets."

Is there a policy rationale for caregivers of post-9/11 vets receiving benefits that other caregivers don't?

"Not from our perspective," says Deborah Amdur, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' chief consultant for care management and social work who oversees the program.

There's already a push to extend the caregiver benefits to all veterans, based on medical and financial need. There's a bill in Congress, and it's also part of the alternative budget from AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It will be unveiled in conjunction with President Barack Obama's 2012-13 proposed budget, scheduled to be sent to Congress later this month.

As part of a two-year review – due by May 2013 – required in the caregiver law, the VA is to tell Congress whether it's feasible and advisable to extend the benefit to all veterans. Because post-9/11 veterans account for only about 10 percent of all veterans, expanding the program would be costly.

"That doesn't mean it shouldn't happen," Amdur says.

A long road for program

Congress passed and Obama signed the law creating the expanded caregiver benefits in 2010 after four years of effort by groups led by the Wounded Warrior Project, which advocates for post-9/11 vets and whose vision is "to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history."

When the bill started moving on Capitol Hill, it became clear that to win bipartisan support in tight budget times, the caregiver program had to be limited, says Christine Hill, the Wounded Warrior Project's executive vice president for governmental affairs.

"The most urgent, compelling need" was to aid severely injured young soldiers just back from the battlefield, she told me. "If we went for an all-or-nothing approach, it would have been nothing."

The program launched last May, after a three-month bureaucratic delay. So far, more than 2,900 family caregivers have been approved. About 3,600 are projected to be enrolled this time next year.

The program has a $160 million budget for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Most of the money goes to the stipends and health care coverage, but some pays for a 24/7 hotline and other services available to all caregivers of veterans.

Depending on how much care the veteran needs, how much assistance the caregiver provides and the local prevailing wage for home health aides, the nontaxable stipend ranges from about $500 to $2,000 a month. In quarterly in-home visits, VA staffers check to see if veterans are getting the right level of benefits.

Spouses and others staying at home to care for injured veterans would be able to take 26 weeks of unpaid leave without fear of losing their jobs, under a proposal announced Monday by first lady Michelle Obama, who has made supporting military families one of her causes.

Advocates say that veterans do better when they're at home and that the program saves taxpayers money over the long run by reducing hospital stays and emergency room visits, and keeping veterans out of institutions.

Getting the word out

In the VA's Northern California Health Care System – which stretches from Redding through Sacramento to Oakland – 30 family caregivers had been approved as of last week and another 26 were in the application process.

Those numbers are expected to grow rapidly as more veterans find out about the program. "For me, the biggest challenge is getting the word out," says Shon Tamblyn, the regional caregiver support coordinator.

Kornelia Strong says families of veterans should be informed about all the services and resources available well before they return because support from family and friends makes the difference for a successful transition to civilian life.

Their story – which they tell unflinchingly and, at times, emotionally – is proof of that.

After three decades on active duty and in the National Guard, Strong was sent in 2003 to his first war zone as part of the 870th Military Police Company, based in Pittsburg. A nurse in civilian life, he served as a medic, treating American wounded as well as Iraqi civilians and even insurgents. He was based at Abu Ghraib, the prison that became notorious for the horrific abuse of Iraqi detainees. His unit wasn't implicated, but it's clear he was affected. It's not a subject he wants to talk about.

While in Iraq in December 2003, he started having fits of anger for no apparent reason. Looking back, Strong, 58, believes he suffered a concussion from a bomb blast while he was out on patrol and not wearing a helmet. It damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, affecting his personality, memory and his judgment.

"When he came back, I saw the changes right away," says Kornelia, 59.

His behavior became increasingly erratic. After two scary incidents in 2009 – he kicked a daughter and nearly had a complete breakdown, and later hit his head and lost consciousness – he went into residential neurological treatment for six months.

Once a week, they drive 20 miles from their Antioch home to the new VA Center for Integrated Brain Health & Wellness in Martinez, where I met them and where he receives treatment. The comprehensive care he has received from the VA – psychotherapy and counseling, physical therapy and tai chi, speech therapy and even pet therapy – "has saved my marriage and my life," Strong says.

He still has trouble with his balance and tends to be forgetful. While challenges lie ahead, they can see a brighter future. Strong is on track to get certified as a veterinary technician this year and hopes to study animal husbandry at UC Davis.

Whatever happens, Strong can be sure that his wife of 39 years will be right by his side.

"She's an angel," he says – an angel lifted up a little by Uncle Sam.

MORE INFORMATION

For more information about the Veterans Affairs caregiver support program, go to www.caregiver.va.gov or call (855) 260-3274.

For more information about a new volunteer program to help caregivers of veterans, call (916) 366-5372.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor



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