Boise VA Medical Center: Reaching Out, Plugging In 

New technologies are bridging the mental health service gap for the region's veterans.

Boise VA Medical Center Director David Wood (left) and Dr. Mark Bondeson, the center's associate chief of staff for behavioral health, participated in this summer's first-of-its-kind mental health summit at the VA.

Patrick Sweeney

Boise VA Medical Center Director David Wood (left) and Dr. Mark Bondeson, the center's associate chief of staff for behavioral health, participated in this summer's first-of-its-kind mental health summit at the VA.

It felt like DeWayne Mayer's family was falling apart. He had just returned home from his deployment to Iraq in October 2005. But his wife, Jeannette, remembers the window blinds in their New Plymouth home being almost always drawn. DeWayne said he constantly saw shadows roaming throughout the house. Sudden movements would set him off; he experienced seizures, flashbacks and disorientation.

"A counselor at the [Veterans Administration] focused on breaking down everything," Jeannette said during an interview with Boise Weekly, her husband sitting nearby. "We had to look at our frustrations and find ways to vent. We had to start rebuilding."

DeWayne was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In only a month, he said he experienced three concussive events.

While traveling in a convoy of Humvees, a bomb detonated below the vehicle in front of Mayer's--killing a friend and causing his vehicle to roll over. In another incident, Mayer was guarding U.S. troops who were dismantling a downed helicopter when he was again struck by an explosion. He said the soldiers didn't warn him that they were about to blow up the crippled aircraft. In a third incident, Mayer said an improvised explosive blew up directly below his Humvee.

"His brain never had a chance to heal," Jeannette said matter-of-factly.

Years of therapy followed, with what the Mayers said were countless visits to physicians.

But now, they say, they have regained what they called "control." DeWayne still has occasional flashbacks and seizures, but they're far less frequent. The family--the couple has a 14-year-old daughter--now has what it called a "central command post," a modified cabinet where the couple sits down each day and writes out each family member's schedule.

"We're a stronger family," Jeannette said. "We communicate better and deal with our frustrations. For us, it was a marriage saver."

The family asks a simple set of questions to ensure that it's able to deal with whatever challenges might arise: "What is our new normal today? And how can we laugh about it?"

DeWayne is one of about 70 area veterans who attended a mental health summit Aug. 14 at the Boise VA Medical Center. Attendees said the first-of-its-kind event was spurred by an April 30 speech in which President Barack Obama called on veterans organizations to redouble efforts to address mental health issues among former members of the armed forces.

"But there's a realization that the VA can't do it all," said Dr. Mark Bondeson, associate chief of staff at the VA's behavioral health office. "Especially in rural areas."

Navigating the transition from a theater of war to civilian life can be challenging for most--extremely difficult for some. It forces men and women to find a new identity, said Gene Hicks, a former Marine who now works as a mental health specialist at Riverside Rehab in Garden City.

"For 21 years, from 18-42 years old, that's who I was," he said of his career in the Marines.

There's "a stigma" attached to the VA and reaching out for treatment, several veterans said at the summit. Coupled with that, the VA system can be hard to navigate for a newcomer.

While many of the veterans who attended the summit praised the Boise VA, they added that there are service gaps. More than one attendee said it was particularly challenging for family members to get a mental health service provider in front of a vet. Offices and some services are limited in rural areas, and specialty treatment sometimes can require long drives.

DeWayne Mayer is a prime example. He and his wife will need to travel to Portland, Ore., just for a consultation to find out what is causing Mayer's back pain. The couple has been trying to find other options to avoid making the drive, but have not yet found any.

"It's really not feasible to drive out there," said Jeannette.

As a partial remedy, VA administrators say they're pushing for new audio-visual technology. Video conferencing is one of the main ways they plan to reach rural veterans. Having the ability to set up virtual meetings with psychologists and/or psychiatrists through a video link should help reach rural areas and could even offer veterans more privacy.

The Boise VA already has about 20 clients who use video conferencing to talk with their counselors. Newly secured federal funds should boost that number. A $340,000 grant is earmarked to install new equipment in three locations in the Northwest. The new equipment likely will be installed early next year.

"We really want to create access in areas where historically it hasn't been there," Hicks said.

That way, in the future, DeWayne and Jeannette might be able to access care from their home. Things are a bit brighter there since the blinds have been opened.

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