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By Kathy Chaffin
Salisbury Post
Three months into his job, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is visiting the troops.
That’s what Dr. James B. Peake told close to 50 people gathered at VFW Post 3006 on Brenner Avenue Thursday for a veterans roundtable with 12th District Congressman Mel Watt.
“I’m just an old soldier,” Peake told veterans, family members, representatives of agencies that work with veterans and employees of the Hefner VA Medical Center who gathered to discuss their concerns with Watt.
And like an old soldier, he said he has spent much of his time since being sworn into office on Dec. 20 talking to the troops, active and retired.
“The idea is to get out and really understand what’s going on with the veterans,” he said, “and how well we’re taking care of them.”
Peake began his Army medical career as a general surgery resident at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. He served as a cardiac surgeon and commander in several medical posts, retiring in 2004 after serving four years as U.S. Army Surgeon General.
His parents were also medical personnel in the armed services and are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“This isn’t just a passing thing,” he said.
Having visited VA medical centers and clinics across the country, Peake said he’s pleased with what he’s seen so far in the commitment of employees who treat veterans.
He outlined his short-term priorities for the Salisbury group, beginning with the transition of service men and women returning from the Iraq War. Peake said the environment awaiting them upon their return home is more welcoming than it was during the Vietnam War era.
“We weren’t treated all that well when we came back,” he said.
Peake said another priority is to ensure that those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) get the help they need to ease back into their lives. For those returning with serious cases, he said, “we need to be there to be able to take care of them and give them a full range of support for the rest of their lives.”
In some cases, Peake said they may not even realize they need help until they’ve been back for a while and start thinking, “Maybe I’m not quite as right as I want to be. Maybe I need a little help.”
President George W. Bush signed legislation on Jan. 20 allowing veterans five years from the time of their discharge to file benefit claims.
“That’s really a positive thing as far as reaching out,” Peake said.
Peake said community-based veteran centers across the country have hired and are planning to hire even more Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans to work with returning soldiers.
“So we’ve got people who can actually relate to the experiences of those we’re trying to reach,” he said. “We’re really trying to reach out and let people know what the benefits are.”
Peake said the key to a successful outreach program is being there when veterans are ready to listen, even if it’s a year or three years after they return home.
“I want people to know we’re there for them.”
Another important factor in meeting the needs of veterans, he said, is dealing with the Veterans Administration’s backlog.
Peake said more processors have been hired to handle the backlog of claims from the growing veterans population. “It’d be nice to flip a switch to make all this happen at once,” he said, but it takes about two years to properly train claim processors.
Another priority for Peake is offering more facility support for veterans. Plans are in place, for example, for four more polytrauma centers designed to provide long-term rehabilitative care to veterans and service members who experienced severe injuries (including brain injuries) to more than one organ system.
Peake said Bush’s proposed budget requests $93.7 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than twice what was appropriated seven years ago. “Congress has been extremely generous to veterans,” he said.
Having the funding appropriated on a discretionary basis may have resulted in more dollars for veterans, he said, than if the funds were allocated based on a mandatory formula.
As U.S. Army Surgeon General, he commanded 50,000 medical personnel and 187 Army medical facilities throughout the world. Prior to that, he served as commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, the largest medical training facility in the world with more than 30,000 students annually.
Peake ó who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with “V” device and a Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster ó was accompanied by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who also addressed the group.
Burr, who represents North Carolina in the U.S. Senate along with Sen. Elizabeth Dole of Salisbury, shared the story of a soldier he met while delivering 75 gift boxes from Wake Forest University athletes to patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. When Burr saw that one of the soldier’s legs was missing from the knee down, he said he asked him, “Son, what happened?”
The soldier, who was 25, explained that his leg had been injured in a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) explosion. Within 15 minutes, he said he had begun receiving help from medical personnel and within two hours, he was being treated by a trauma team.
Afterward, the soldier told Burr, a doctor told him he was going to be able to save his leg. He wouldn’t have full use of it, the doctor said, but he’d still have his leg.
The soldier went on to say that he asked the doctor if what he’d heard about prosthetics today was true ó that people who wear them can play golf, run, even re-enlist. The doctor said yes, he told Burr.
The soldier said he then asked the doctor: “Could you do me a favor? Will you cut it off right below the knee?”
“True story,” Burr said, saying that is just one example of how treatment options for wounded soldiers have improved over the years.
Watt, who is running for his ninth term in Congress, said the visit by Peake and Burr was “an unexpected treat.” When he heard they were going to be in the area to visit the new community-based Veterans Affairs clinic in Charlotte, Watt said he asked them to drop by.
“We’re fortunate that we were able to make that happen,” he said.
Watt said partisan politics do not apply when it comes to helping veterans. Though Veterans Affairs falls under the executive branch of the government, he said Congress appropriates the funding and makes sure the funds are spent effectively and efficiently.
In a handout distributed to everyone at the roundtable, Watt lists the key accomplishments for veterans in the 110th Congress, including $11.8 billion in increases over 12 months. This represents a 30 percent increase in the Veterans Affairs funding baseline from January 2007.
Other key increases implemented since January of last year, according to the handout, are as follows:
– $29.1 billion for medical services, representing a 29 percent increase;
– $3.5 billion for medical administration, a 21 percent increase;
– $4.1 billion for medical facilities, a 24 percent increase;
– $480 million for medical research, a 17 percent increase;
– $428 million for substance abuse, a 20 percent increase;
– $130 million for homeless veterans, a 104 percent increase.
Coming Saturday: Read more about the discussion at Congressman Mel Watt’s veterans roundtable.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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