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Originally published Monday, December 5, 2011 at 9:16 AM

Disabled veterans concentrated in Tacoma area

The communities surrounding Tacoma have the highest per capita population of seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on the West Coast, according to Department of Veterans Affairs records obtained by McClatchy Newspapers and analyzed by The News Tribune.

The News Tribune

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TACOMA, Wash. —

The communities surrounding Tacoma have the highest per capita population of seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on the West Coast, according to Department of Veterans Affairs records obtained by McClatchy Newspapers and analyzed by The News Tribune.

Veterans come to the region for reasons that are obvious on a drive down Interstate 5. Some finish their military careers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord; others seek medical care at the base's Warrior Transition Battalion before they leave the service.

They stay for the resources at Puget Sound Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, as well as for the region's diverse economy and its generally supportive attitude toward veterans.

"They live here because they're welcome here. I honestly believe that," said retired Army Lt. Col. Jake Holeman, 66, a Vietnam veteran and an officer in Lakewood's chapter of Disabled American Veterans.

But even with the goodwill, the presence of thousands of seriously disabled veterans poses new and lasting challenges for the region as it learns to assimilate the generation of service members who bore the brunt of a decade of combat in the Middle East.

"We're going to have more," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "That's what concerns me. We have thousands of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan in the next year and a half, and that could overwhelm the system very quickly."

She and other policy makers foresee challenges for disabled veterans as the wars end, such as:

. The Department of Veterans Affairs has expanded to meet a growing demand for behavioral health treatment, yet it suffers from a backlog in caring for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to records Murray obtained. The VA hospital in Seattle appears to be the exception, with consistently quick turnarounds for patients seeking help for PTSD.

. Nearly half of disabled veterans from all generations recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center said their combat injuries prevented them from holding down steady work after they left the service, according to a study released last week.

. About half of homeless veterans have disabilities compared with 40 percent of the nation's civilian homeless population, according to Housing and Urban Development statistics.

The VA data obtained by McClatchy shows that 2,605 seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live in Washington communities with ZIP codes beginning with 983, such as DuPont, Puyallup and Bremerton. That is a ratio of 365 seriously disabled veterans for every 100,000 residents.

The numbers drop off for Tacoma and communities with ZIP codes beginning with 984. Together, they have 1,144 seriously disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, for a ratio of 286 for every 100,000 residents.

Olympia and Lacey have a similar mix, with 1,351 seriously disabled veterans making a ratio of 284 for every 100,000 residents.

(For their analysis, The News Tribune and McClatchy determined that a seriously disabled veteran is one given a disability rating of 50 to 100 by the VA. This means they are from 50 percent to 100 percent unable to perform their jobs in the military.)

Communities with greater concentrations of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tend to have significant military medical resources. For example, San Antonio has 719 seriously disabled residents for every 100,000 residents. That city is near Brooke Army Medical Center, which provides medical care for wounded soldiers.

Retired Staff Sgt. Jim Dahl of Des Moines is one soldier who settled in the South Sound as he left the Army because of injuries he suffered in Iraq.

A member of a Georgia-based Ranger unit, he was sent to Lewis-McChord's Warrior Transition Battalion for medical care in 2008.

Dahl, 43, has wounds to his head, neck, back and legs, but he's considered disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs because of the post-traumatic stress he developed during his deployments.

He said Puget Sound VA has treated him well, but he has not yet found PTSD counseling he trusts. He avoids anti-depressants and counseling because he finds they do more harm than good.

Instead, he tries to live simply, takes cooking classes and is putting together a plan to open a bed and breakfast where veterans can relax by working with horses.

"You work with the horses, and the horse will listen to anything you got to say," he said. "They're not going to judge, and they're not going to tell you you just need to get over it."

He worries the VA isn't ready for the thousands of service members who will be seeking care for PTSD and brain injuries in the near future.

"They didn't expect the war to go on as long as it did, and they didn't expect it to be as violent as it was," he said.

Already, the workload at the VA Puget Sound is daunting. Its operating budget soared to $559.7 million in 2010, up from $499.7 million in 2008. It cared for 80,609 patients last year, up from 62,920 in 2008.

More than 15,000 of last year's patients were younger than 44.

Like Dahl, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Mynor Gaitan, 40, came to Lewis-McChord for care in its Warrior Transition Battalion. He left the Army in September and is still awaiting a final disability rating that will help determine his lifetime benefits and pension.

Gaitan endured repeated explosions during his third deployment to Iraq in 2005-06, when his job called on him to clear roads of improvised bombs with Lewis-McChord's 14th Engineer Battalion.

Gaitan looks back and sees that he showed signs of PTSD after the deployment. He had a quick temper and would sometimes choose to sleep in his car rather than go inside with his family.

"I was an angry, depressed person - isolated," he said.

His wife in 2009 told him to seek treatment, but he still wanted to deploy to Afghanistan and he feared he'd be held back. A doctor at his base in Germany refused to clear him, and he began to face his ailments.

He and his family now live in Olympia, and he's surprised by the number of organizations that offer confidential help. He said he wished he had known about those services years ago.

State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, last week led a hearing in Olympia in which lawmakers advanced several bills to help veterans land on their feet when they leave the service.

She'd like to expand social services for former service members to access immediately after they leave the military. That can be a vulnerable period because it can take months for veterans to figure out how to get what they need from the VA.

The safety net for those veterans is not "nearly what it's going to need to be for the men and women coming back," Orwall said. "It's pretty scary."

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Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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