|Capt. Jeff Laumer on deployment in Farah, Afghanistan.|
In 1998, Jeff Laumer enlisted in the Army as a Medical Specialist.
“When I first joined, I was doing it to earn money for college; however, it wasn’t until I became a Cadet at West Point that I really got into the professional aspect of being an officer.”
Laumer spent three years as an Infantry Officer at the National Training Center in California before, on Veterans Day two years ago, he deployed to Afghanistan.
He described his 12 months in Western Afghanistan as the best time he had in the Army.
“I was an embedded combat advisor and mentor,” Laumer said. “We were a small team and we were really close-knit. We got in firefights and we did a lot of active combat operations, but the most impressive thing that I took away from the experience was the positive impact that we had on the Afghan community.”
Training the Afghan police force and carrying out humanitarian missions inspired his post-military plans for a career in non-profit and development work. Returning home, Laumer promised himself that he would take some time off, spend time with family, travel, and then “make a really conscientious decision on what I would do next.”
His first trip to VA was also on his list of things to take care of.
|Veterans sign up for VA coverage at the Erie VA Medical Center.|
The first visit
The majority of Veterans are no longer from “The Greatest Generation” or even “Gen X.” Veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom include patriotic reservists as well as young military men and women.
Welcome Home events and Post-Deployment meetings shepherd many new Veterans into VA enrollment programs. VA medical centers make every effort to reach the rest of the returning Veterans; those who are new to the area or returned from deployment with a limited support system in place.
“There’s a lot of collaboration between VBA, VHA and Vet Centers on how to reach out to these Veterans,” said Richard Moore, Staff Assistant to the Director at Erie VA Medical Center. “Our outreach into the community allows us to pick up some Veterans who may have been discharged without any information about the VA.”
In 2010, the Erie VA Medical Center participated in 56 outreach events. County fairs, pre- and post-deployment clinics, and local expos all helped VA get in touch with area Veterans.
Moore added that coming to VA to register for services was a daunting, but important first step. “I think our program kind of alleviates that stress, because they don’t have to do it by themselves.”
A Veteran’s first stop at their local VA medical center is the eligibility department. With their discharge papers, DD Form 214, in hand, a Veteran will have all of the necessary medical records and service history to start their VA coverage.
All Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are entitled to five years of free VA coverage for any conditions that may be related to their service in the theater of operations.
From the eligibility office, the OEF/OIF program manager would be called up to meet the Veteran and give them a tour of the medical center. Along the way, Veterans can sign up for a dental appointment, a traumatic brain injury screening and a visit to the post deployment clinic.
“Our staff has worked hard to really be efficient with all of our process, so that we are able to take care of [the Veterans] in a timely fashion — Our goal is to schedule an initial appointment within two weeks of enrollment, or sooner if needed,” said Sarah Gudgeon, Public Affairs Specialist at Erie VA Medical Center.
That initial appointment covers all the bases of both mental and physical health. Evaluations with a social worker, behavioral health clinician and primary care physician establish a baseline for the Veteran’s health and treatment plan. Following this first two hour appointment, additional care visits are on a “need basis,” Gudgeon said.
“Each Veteran is contacted at least once a year to make sure their health services are OK and they’re doing OK.”
|Capt. Jeff Laumer teaching Afghani police.|
The enrollment process
When Laumer first left the military, he wasn’t sure how to get involved in VA. It took him six months before he got into the system.
“It’s just overwhelming, it’s really overwhelming. When I got back there were a lot of things I was doing. I had kind of a difficult time transitioning back so quickly.”
In spite of the post-deployment guide he had to work from, Laumer said it took a lot of initiative to seek out the information he needed.
While he was staying in Boston, Laumer received help from a case manager with the Statewide Advocacy for Veteran Empowerment (SAVE) to get his DD-214 in order. He was then able to start the enrollment process at his hometown VA in Erie, Pa.
Once he got to the Erie VA, Laumer said the sign up process was extremely easy.
He was able to see a provider that same day and was put in touch with the behavioral health department to review his transition progress.
Behavioral therapy is one service that may come as a surprise to new Veterans. The Erie VA Medical Center has seen a lot of value in their reintegration group and family readjustment retreat.
“They’re not aware of all the programs we have,” said Gudgeon. “They still have the image in their head of their grandfathers’ VA. It’s a new VA focused on improving services for Veterans of all eras, male and female.”
Laumer anticipates facing more health concerns in the future, possibly stemming from his military service, but said “the fact that I was able to come back with all my fingers and toes is the first victory.”
“I don’t think the system is perfect, but I think that it’s improving and I think it’s important for returning Veterans to know what’s available and how they can go about taking advantage of the VA.”
Previous story: Combat Photographer Captures the Strength of America’s Veterans
Next story: A Daily Remembrance: Every Day is Veterans Day