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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Special Team at Houston VA Ensures Returning Combat Troops Receive Care

August 15, 2008

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Even with the extensive benefits returning veterans are eligible and qualified for, our biggest challenge is getting them to enroll with the VA to receive care,” said Fern Taylor, OEF/OIF Support Team program coordinator. “Most are focusing on returning to their families, jobs, and their lives.” Above, Taylor provides information to and answers questions from a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


By JaKeitha Patterson, MHA, Administrative Fellow

HOUSTON – Robert Engelbrecht was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device, Dillon Cannon was paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet, and David Lewis was partially blinded by a rocket-propelled grenade. These brave individuals are but three of our nation’s newest veterans — the men and women who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq (OIF).

Recent combat has demonstrated the nature of modern warfare has changed. More war-wounded are returning with complex, multiple injuries such as amputations, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injury, visual impairments, and psychological adjustment problems.

In response to the unique physical and mental health needs of returning combat veterans, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) assembled a team of specialists to ensure smooth transition to VA medical care.

This six-member OEF/OIF Support Team includes Fern Taylor, program coordinator; Toni Brown, LCSW, program manager; Raj Dhamija, R.N., clinical nurse case manager; M. Wade Cooper, LCSW, social worker; Vickie Toliver, transition patient advocate; and Rose Bush, administrative support assistant.

The team provides assistance and support to all OEF/OIF veterans, including walk-in patients as well as direct transfers from Department of Defense (DoD) medical facilities such as Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Once a veteran contacts the MEDVAMC, the team facilitates the enrollment process for the veteran to receive VA health care, ensures he or she is assigned a primary care provider, cuts through red tape and solves problems, and coordinates medical care services and appointments. Upon entering the VA health care system, each OEF/OIF veteran undergoes a 90-minute comprehensive screening for possible war-related conditions.

“Many recently returned veterans have a difficult time verbalizing their symptoms,” said Toliver. “This screening is critical to identify, as quickly as possible, any injuries they may have sustained in combat.”

Since the actual affects of combat-related injuries may take years to develop, OEF/OIF veterans are allowed five years after separation from the military to apply for VA medical services. Veterans can become "grandfathered" for future access by enrolling with VA during this period. Veterans with service-related injuries or illnesses always have access to VA care for the treatment of their disabilities without any time limit, as do lower-income veterans. Hospital care, outpatient treatment, and nursing home services are all offered at the MEDVAMC.

To date, the OEF/OIF Support Team at the MEDVAMC has assisted more than 5,000 ambulatory and approximately 100 severely injured and seriously ill veterans.

“Even with the extensive benefits returning veterans are eligible and qualified for, our biggest challenge is getting them to enroll with the VA to receive care,” said Taylor. “Most are focusing on returning to their families, jobs, and their lives.”

The OEF/OIF Support Team proactively meets with local Reserve and National Guard Units before and after deployment to brief about available VA benefits, placing special emphasis on mental health screening and counseling. In addition to making personal home visits and manning information booths at military family days and welcome home events, team members also attend meetings of various community and veterans groups in an attempt to contact eligible veterans who have not yet enrolled for VA care.

“We want each and every veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan to know we are here for them,” said Brown. “VA services are not only available, but accessible.”

To contact the OEF/OIF Support Team, call (713) 794-7034/8825, FAX (713) 794-7767/7478, or email

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