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Vets vent during visit to Tigard Armory

Returning Oregon and Air National Guard members say they don't get a fair shake when it comes to medical care and jobs
by: Jaime Valdez, TOUCHING TESTIMONY — In Tigard on Tuesday, National Guard Sgt. Benjamin Hier of Eugene testifies in front of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Ted Kulongoski about his problems getting health care after being injured in Afghanistan.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski visited the National Guard Armory in Tigard on Tuesday and got an earful about the conditions Guard veterans face after returning home.

At the two-plus-hour event, the conversation primarily centered on health care and jobs. Wyden and Kulongoski listened intently to horror stories from vets and their family members about navigating through an unyielding bureaucracy to get their physical and mental health issues resolved.

In the transition time after first arriving home, 'there is not as much support for Guard members' as there is for regular military troops, Wyden noted.

Since 9/11, there have been 7,350 individual deployments of Oregon and Air National Guard members, and some have served more than once, according to retired Col. Scott McCrae. Because Oregon does not have a base, the soldiers tend to scatter back to their hometowns when their tours finish.

With returning Guard members only getting seven to 10 days of integration time between war and family life, several people said that the time should be extended anywhere from 15 days to three or four months.

Although information is not kept on returning soldiers suffering from mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in part due to confidentiality issues, national statistics indicate that 17 percent of returning vets have such issues.

On finding jobs for vets, SFC Phillip Mass told Wyden and Kulongoski, 'All we do from sun up to sundown is to assist soldiers in getting family-wage jobs.'

While Ron Cannon, director of the U.S. Department of Labor/Veterans' Employment and Training Service, said, 'I have not heard any complaints from soldiers about losing jobs because of serving,' Kulongoski said that employers had a different story to tell.

He has heard complaints from employers that it's hard to keep jobs open for soldiers with multiple deployments. 'They ask, 'How do you expect us to hold jobs open (under those circumstances)?'' he said.

Another issue is health insurance, with some Guard members saying that they have trouble getting in to see doctors because TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the insurance program that pays for medical care for vets and their families, doesn't pay enough.

After listening to various officials, including those from the Oregon Employment Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Wyden and Kulongoski heard stories from vets and their family members.

Armondo Borboa was an infantry paratrooper whose arm now goes numb when he holds a gun, and he called dealing with his injuries a 'logistical nightmare.'

After he returned home and was sent to Fort Lewis, he waited 45 days to see a specialist.

'When you aren't seen by a primary-care doctor for a long time, secondary conditions develop,' he said. 'The way soldiers are treated is beyond nonprofessional.'

In addition, 'the commander and first sergeant both took off for a majority of a month, so there was no senior staff to help us,' Borboa said. 'The level of medical care there was great, once we could get to it. I spent three months going from one specialist to another - it took me that long to get a primary-care doctor.

'I was a fit individual - I ran seven LA marathons. Now I'm 30 pounds overweight and can barely climb a flight of stairs. The programs are there, and they work. But they're not available to us. If they are available, we can't get to them.'

Furthermore, Borboa said, 'We are an all-volunteer force. We go overseas with the notion that when we get home, someone will be there to take care of us. But if you're hurt, you have to take your fate into your own hands.'

After listening to another story of medical mismanagement, Wyden said, 'This is a textbook case of what we want to avoid. We must have someone designated to help soldiers navigate through the system.'

Kulongoski added, 'Soldiers get excellent care up to the time they get home. When they get home, they get lost in the system.'

At the conclusion of the hearing, Wyden said, 'We're doing a lot of things right in this state, but we still have a lot of heavy lifting to do. If even one of you falls through the cracks of healthcare, it's one too many. Thank you all.'