OPINION: We Must Do Everything To Protect Veterans' Mental Health

By Senator Roy Dyson

Harrowing reports are coming from Iraq, Afghanistan and the home front regarding the way our veterans are receiving physical and mental health care.

No matter how one feels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no denying that we all care about the welfare of the great men and women who are fighting there. Unfortunately, the system for treating veterans, National Guard and reservists - our whole fighting forces—are not being treated as well as they are performing on the ground and when they get home.

I have two good friends who have taken it upon themselves to pay numerous visits to Walter Reed medical hospital and bring wounded soldiers to their home and treat them to a good time away from the circumstances in Washington.

Another local person who I have worked with and have great respect for has traveled the state advocating for better treatment for our wounded veterans. This retired officer does this work on a volunteer basis.

So when it comes to "supporting our troops" I know of many people in our area who are doing just that.

I just wish I could say the same for our national system which by all indications is doing a substandard job of treating our wounded - especially those who have mental problems associated with the horrors of war that they see every day. They will relive these horrors for the rest of their lives which is why we need better mental health care coverage for them then they are receiving.

Maryland is doing its best to do a better job of taking care of our wounded troops. I was pleased to be a co-sponsor of the Veterans Advocacy and Education Act of 2006 which passed unanimously in the General Assembly two Sessions ago and became law.

That bill did several positive things for our veterans.

It established a Veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts Scholarship and requires the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs (run by an outstanding Secretary in James Adkins) to develop and implement an outreach and advocacy program. The bill also established a Task Force to Study State Assistance to Veterans.

During the 2007 General Assembly Session, Senate Bill 873, which passed and which I co-sponsored, extended the task force's final report to the governor from December 1, 2007 to May 31, 2009. One reason this extension is needed is that the state realizes that we have a bigger problem serving our veterans than we initially thought we had. We need as comprehensive a blueprint as possible to better serve our veterans and their families.

The Task Force to Study State Assistance to Veterans must make recommendations on the availability and accessibility of services for veterans. It also must study the efficiency of existing services as well as the feasibility of establishing new services for veterans and the potential impact of an increased number of veterans returning from military service.

The Veterans Advocacy and Education Act of 2006 established an outreach and advocacy program with the Maryland Veterans Affairs to ensure that veterans are informed of available federal and state services, benefits and assistance and to bring issues related to veterans' needs to the attention of the Governor and the General Assembly.

The program must help veterans and their dependents access benefits. The MDVA must report annually on the outreach and advocacy program, the benefits that have been requested and received by veterans and their families, the status of various veterans programs and the estimated impact of the current military actions on the needs of veterans in the future.

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