Durham County

VA on vets: ‘If they’re never in our system, we never have a chance of saving them’

Veterans need more mental health support and care, says Air Force vet

Ronald Allen, an Air Force veteran, shares his concerns about mental health care for veterans at the town hall meeting at the Durham VA Medical Center Thursday.
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Ronald Allen, an Air Force veteran, shares his concerns about mental health care for veterans at the town hall meeting at the Durham VA Medical Center Thursday.

Every day, 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide, but of that 20 only six had been or were being treated in the Veterans Affairs health care system.

“If they’re never in our system, we never have a chance of saving them,” said Joseph Edger, interim director of the Durham VA Medical Center, at a town hall meeting at the 508 Fulton St. center Thursday.

Ronald Allen, an Air Force veteran with 25 years of service, asked a panel of Durham VA leaders about the wait time for veterans seeking mental health care.

“We have so many veterans that are dying every day that need to be seen by someone,” Allen said.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, the Durham VA’s chief of staff, said that for veterans at risk of suicide, there is no wait time.

“If you walk into any of our sites of care, you can expect immediate treatment and addressment of that emergency need,” he said.

For veterans who are seeking long-term aid, not crisis attention, the VA system builds a comprehensive treatment plan around the individual needs of each veteran. According to Goldberg, the Durham VA offers a “large and diverse staff” including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and veterans peer support coordinators to treat mental health conditions.

Goldberg said that because each individual’s needs are different, the wait time to start “routine care” varies, but all cases are “measured in days, not weeks.”

Goldberg said that next available appointment times are listed on the Durham VA website (durham.va.gov) so patients are informed up-front about their expected timeline.

The website clarity and town halls are part of a move towards greater transparency in the VA system on the national level. The VA nationally has received a great deal of criticism for its misrepresentation of waiting periods for veterans in need of care.

The Durham VA hosts quarterly town halls in order to give veterans and community members an opportunity to raise their concerns about their care. Edger, who began his role as interim director on Monday, led the town hall for his first time Thursday.

“I think it went well,” he said. “I wanted the veterans to see that I’m not afraid to take their issues, good or bad.”

Edger, a fourth-generation combat veteran, served 25 years in the Army. He said his passion for the VA is personal because it has provided his father and him with their health care.

“The military runs in my blood, in my family,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

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