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Bronx VA prepares for soldiers coming home

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 12/22/2011, 1:37 p.m.

On Sunday, the last convoy of U.S. soldiers left the nation of Iraq, ending a war that defined the first decade of the 21st century. The invasion of the country and eventual takedown of Saddam Hussein cost close to 4,500 American lives and tens of thousands Iraqi lives, including many civilians. Over 32,000 American soldiers were wounded.

At the time of America's departure, the war had cost around $800 billion to fight. In the end, it could cost upward of $4 trillion, when factoring in things like medical treatment and replacement of military vehicles.

With the imminent arrival of soldiers on American soil, places like the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx are gearing up to treat and help soldiers adjust to civilian life. Jim Connell, director of community and government relations and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, spoke with the AmNews about some of the programs the hospital has set up for the soldiers. He also wanted to address a few fears about the new veterans possibly overcrowding hospitals when they come home.

"First of all, people should keep in mind that the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan represent a much smaller demographic than the troops of any of our previous wars," said Connell. "For instance, we had almost 16 million combatants in World War II, around 5 million in Korea and approximately 8 million from Vietnam. By contrast, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have seen around 2.5 million troops, many of whom have made multiple tours. Nationwide and here in the Bronx, the VA should be in good shape to absorb these veterans once they are discharged from active duty."

But once these soldiers are discharged from active duty, they have a rough landscape to face in America. With jobs harder to find and congress fighting over basic things like unemployment and tax cuts, Connell knows that the adjustment won't be easy.

"They are also coming back to a tender economy, a high cost of living area and high unemployment," he said. "The VA is ramping up its homeless and housing program staff and its mental health department and working on many new and exciting methods of diagnosing and treating the problems of our latest generation of veterans."

Connell's focus isn't only on the sensationalized aspects of soldiers coming home, like the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and learning how to live with a limb, but also on things like weight loss and eating habits.

"Last year, we started a bariatric surgery program here, which has seen great success in helping overweight veterans bring down their weight and reduce associated problems like diabetes," stated Connell.

"We are the only VA in the country working with the ReWalk device, an exoskeleton mechanism that will allow paraplegics to walk and climb stairs," he continued. "We remain the region's only PolyTrauma and spinal cord injury referral center, and we are breaking ground on a new, three-floor Spinal Cord Injury Center of Excellence that is scheduled to be completed in 2017."

Connell also told the AmNews that several weeks ago, the James J. Peters VA Medical Center became the first VA medical center within the VA NY/NJ Veterans Healthcare Network to acquire the da Vinci Surgical System. The robotic system provides some advantages over the usual laparoscopic surgery by providing a "three-dimensional view of the operative area, improved magnification, hand tremor filtering and range of motion similar to that of the human wrist."

According to Connell, the approach is minimally invasive and results in less blood loss, less post-operative pain, shorter stays and speedier recovery.

So while a soldier may still have difficulty adjusting to the life of an everyday American, and there will be setbacks, they'll hopefully get the much-needed care and thanks for their sacrifice and service. Connell hopes so as well.

"We are proud of our outreach to these veterans, and we have the highest per-capita enrollment of recently discharged veterans in the country. We have enrolled approximately 70 percent of the veterans discharged to our catchment area [the area the institution serves]."

Maybe Christmas can come early for a few of the nation's bravest.