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Veterans Affairs secretary says US veterans now screened for brain injuries, post-traumatic stress

JUNE 11, 2007

ARLINGTON, Texas: All soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan who seek treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals are being screened for brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said Monday.

The initiative, which has been in place about 90 days, was created in response to veterans' needs, he said.

"Whether they come to us with a toothache or a sore knee, we screen them for any form of brain injury, and we are now screening every one of them for post-traumatic stress disorder," Nicholson told The Associated Press before attending an event at a VA pharmacy in Lancaster, south of Dallas.

Last month, a Pentagon panel said that more than one-third of U.S. veterans suffer from such problems as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Saying those numbers are expected to worsen, the task force called for more money and a shift in treatment to focus on prevention and screening.

Nicholson said the new screenings are not a direct response to the "Wounded Warrior Assistance Act," approved by Congress in late March after revelations of shabby treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

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Nicholson said that in the screening process, VA clinicians first talk to veterans, who will be given further testing such as brain scans if they have symptoms. He said previous research has focused on traumatic brain injuries rather than mild ones, which actually may account for many injuries in the bomb-ridden war zone.

"This is one of the signature injuries of this conflict, and we have now determined that because of the presence of these blasts, the kind of combat environment that the men and women over there are enduring, there's a possibility that they've had these injuries and were not aware of it, so we're checking," Nicholson said.

He also said some returning troops have been reluctant to seek mental health treatment because of society's stigmas, although post-traumatic stress disorder is treatable. He said that the VA is "being very aggressive with outreach" and said each VA medical center has a PTSD clinical team or specialist focusing on treating the disorder.

A report released last month by the VA inspector general, the first comprehensive look at the agency's mental health care, recommended additional screening for patients with traumatic brain injury.

Disabled American Veterans spokesman Dave Autry said Monday that his organization welcomes the additional brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder screening at VA health clinics.

"If a soldier is in an explosion and loses an arm or a leg, traumatic brain injury was something automatically looked for," Autry said. "But others are getting banged around a little bit, getting rocked by dozens of explosions and are suffering from mild and moderate brain injuries and were getting misdiagnosed."

Nicholson said the additional screening is being funded through $100 million (74.88 million) for enhancement mental health services and $20 million (14.98 million) for veterans centers that help returning soldiers readjust to everyday life. Both were in the supplemental spending bill.