Arundel offers health aid for veterans

Programs available to soldiers back from Iraq, Afghanistan

July 02, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Anne Arundel County yesterday became the first local jurisdiction in Maryland to offer free mental health and substance abuse programs to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The $100,000 program, which also offers treatment options for veterans' families, includes a 24-hour hot line, and assessment and treatment services in county facilities or through contracted professionals.

Since October, 578 veterans have returned to Anne Arundel County, more than any other county in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. Prince George's County ranked second with 520 veterans, followed by Montgomery County with 327.

"This is a very concrete way that the citizens of the county and this administration can lend a hand to those most in need," said County Executive John R. Leopold. "We want to create as smooth an assimilation to the work environment as possible for these men and women who put themselves on the line."

About one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, but just over half seek treatment, according to a study released in April by the Rand Corp, a non-profit national security think tank. In May, Army officials announced that they had recorded 115 suicides in 2007, the highest of any year on record.

The Anne Arundel initiative kicks off just after the state launched a $2.8 million plan last month to provide better mental health and substance abuse programs for veterans who live in rural communities. That initiative also established a state veterans health advisory board which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and will look to fill gaps in the existing system, said Laurie Atherholt, director of outreach and advocacy for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs

Maryland is home to more than 10,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and state officials expect another 5,000 to return home from those battle zones by the end of 2008.

The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs has six veteran centers in Maryland - including facilities in Aberdeen, Baltimore City, Silver Spring, Towson, Cambridge and Elkton - but daytime working hours can make them hard to access for returning soldiers who live in remote areas, said Atherholt, who added that the Anne Arundel program will complement the state's new safety net.

"All of us are thrilled," Atherholt said of Anne Arundel plan. "A veteran can go to the VA centers, they can go to the state services and now they can go to the county."

As of yesterday, at least one person had called Anne Arundel's veterans affairs hot line (410-222-0117), said Bill Rufenacht, deputy director of behavior and health for the Anne Arundel County Department of health.

"This is a good start," said Councilman G. James Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat and the county's only elected military veteran. "I would certainly like to see the county doing more for veterans, especially those coming back with less than deployed with, but every little step helps."

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