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Veterans Health Administration

Former Combat Vets Help Returning Vets Access VA System

Three men at computer

Philip Wynn (center), Nurse Case Manager, and Louis Gibson, Transitional Patient Advocate, explain to Danny Russell, Jr., an OEF/OIF/OND Veteran and VA patient, how to enroll in My HealtheVet.

Muskogee VA Combat Care Team

“Combat Veterans tend to open up with me.”

Louis Gibson is talking about his job as a Transitional Patient Advocate for the VA. Vets open up with him because he is also a Veteran. As is Phillip Wynn, a nurse case manager.

Both work at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, Okla., as members of the Combat Care Team.

Louis and Phillip are both OIF combat Veterans and served together in Baghdad with the 45th Infantry Brigade. They are also both VA patients.

Their unique perspective enables them to relate in a distinctive way to Veterans entering the VA health care system.

“Hey, the system can be daunting,” Gibson admits. “When Veterans come to the VA, it shouldn’t feel like they just rolled out of the Forward Operating Base and into the unknown.”

“My motivation comes from serving those who…serve something larger than themselves.”

— Phillip Wynn, VA Nurse Case Manager

A West Point graduate and native of Muskogee, Gibson says, “Combat changes men and women and returning Veterans often don’t see the changes. Sometimes, they see it but won’t admit it and don’t want help.

“Most often, it is a current crisis they are facing. I see the problems from their perspective and can get them to the correct person faster. Having a background that is both military and medical, I can help facilitate care better by clearing up misconceptions from either the patient or the doctor.”

Wynn, a proven long-distance marksman and military nurse, also saw combat in Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom with the 45th Infantry Brigade.

He relates to the Vets that he works with today because he knows what they have been through. “Our hats are off to our men and women serving in the hot spots of the world,” he adds. “They had our backs during our deployment and now we have theirs.”

Smooth Transition

“Our number one mission is to make their transition into the VA health care system as smooth as possible.”

Gibson and Wynn don’t sit in their offices waiting for Vets to come to them. They regularly travel across eastern Oklahoma to assist Vets with serious problems.

As Wynn explains, “Most of our home visits are for the Caregiver program. I assess the Veteran’s needs with an emphasis on safety issues. I assess how well the Veteran can perform activities of daily living.

“I also assess the Veteran’s safety plan for fire and other emergencies including an inspection of the home for escape routes and smoke detectors. We assess the caregiver’s knowledge and inquire about their backup plan if they must be away from the Veteran on short notice or prolonged periods of time.

“We also inquire about the caregiver’s plan for personal respite.”

Gibson adds, “We also do teaching on these visits for whatever needs are apparent. These could be about medication, safety issues, diet, how to apply for a service connection, and programs at the hospital such as My HealtheVet.”

A recent four-hour road trip took them to Danny Russell Jr.’s house where they helped him sign up for VA health care and apply for his benefits. “He was having it pretty rough. Pay issues. Cancer. We were able to guide him through some of the government lingo and acronyms. It’s what we do,” Wynn said.

Gibson spends a lot of time trying to get the word out: “A Veteran should come to the VA for their health care because they have fought for this country. Many brothers and sisters-in-arms have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many others will carry with them the visible and invisible scars of war.

Something They Have Earned

“Receiving their health care at a VA facility is something they have earned. Our past Veterans have fought hard to ensure the Veterans of today’s wars are welcomed home and have access to a premier health system they did not have.

“Today’s VA health care system is superb. These doctors, nurses, therapists, staffs and researchers are specially trained in caring for one population — Veterans. No other health care system can say that.”

Phillip Wynn, who sustained a mild traumatic brain injury from a rocket blast, has been a Registered Nurse for almost 35 years and has worked in nearly all areas from Labor and Delivery to Home Health.

Currently, he is the OEF/OIF/OND Nurse Case Manager at the Muskogee VA Medical Center.

A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Oklahoma Army National Guard with 25 years of service, Wynn was the Deputy Director for Public Safety in the Installations Directorate in Iraq, working with Iraqi police, fire and emergency medical services.

He receives treatment at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, Okla. for a variety of service-connected problems.

“I have never had better treatment anywhere. My primary care provider is an advanced registered nurse practitioner and is very good.”

Wynn’s hobby is competitive service rifle shooting. He has earned the U.S. Army Distinguished Rifleman award and Distinguished Pistol Shot badges and has competed at the National Trophy matches at Camp Perry, Ohio for several years.

Something Larger Than Themselves

What drives these two combat Veterans?

Wynn says, “My motivation comes from serving those who have taken time out of their lives to serve something larger than themselves. Many of these Veterans have risked their lives serving.

“All of them have sacrificed, missed anniversaries, births, graduations, ball games, weddings and more.

“It is always a special day for me when a former Thunderbird 45th Infantry soldier from the Oklahoma Guard comes into my office. It gives me the opportunity to serve one of my comrades.

“The 45th Infantry is currently in Afghanistan again and have sustained seven deaths since their arrival in June.

“When they come home next spring our team will be at their Yellow Ribbon and Post Deployment events to provide information about VA health care benefits and enroll them if they choose to.”

The brigade of approximately 2,500 soldiers will return next spring. Wynn sent a video along from the University of Oklahoma as a demonstration of the community support for Veterans.

Gibson adds, “A lot of what I do is listen. Having walked in their shoes as a combat soldier, I can remind them that all the therapy in the world won’t matter if they don’t put forth the effort to develop a sense of purpose in their own life.

“I encourage them to set small goals, to hook on to people that are a positive force in their life and to learn to let go or at least live comfortably with the past.”

Wynn, an Oklahoma Sooners and Dallas Cowboys fan, wants more Americans to know about VA’s dedication to Veterans. “Look at the dedicated, caring and professional people I work with. They work hard and they do the best they can with the resources we have to care for our Veterans. They are good people.”