DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sen. Daniel Akaka, left, and staff member Bill Brew greeted Victor Opiopio, the radio personality known as Crash Kealoha, at right in wheelchair, who shook hands with Adelaida Juanatas, widow of a veteran, yesterday at the Oahu Veterans Center.
U.S. Senate panel hears of vets’ woes
Ariana Del Negro says her husband was knocked flat by a 7,000-pound car bomb in Iraq, and came home to Hawaii with debilitating headaches, vertigo, memory lapses and hearing loss.
But his traumatic brain injury was just the beginning of the Army ranger's ordeal.
"My husband describes the struggles we have had with Tripler Army Medical Center as being as painful as sustaining the injury itself," Del Negro told the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs yesterday. Because the injury was invisible, some medical providers suggested he was just shirking his duty, she said.
Del Negro was the lead-off witness at the first of a series of congressional hearings in Hawaii by the panel, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka. A standing-room-only crowd of 300 people, mostly elderly veterans of previous wars, filled the Oahu Veterans Center.
Akaka said he is pushing for more funding and better care for soldiers with traumatic brain injury, the signature injury of the Iraq war. He also wants to extend eligibility for medical benefits for recently released combat veterans from two to five years, because "invisible wounds" such as post-traumatic stress disorder can take time to manifest.
Maj. Gen. Robert Lee, Hawaii's adjutant general, noted that traumatic brain injury wasn't even on the "checklist" in health assessments when the Army National Guard 29th Brigade returned from Iraq early last year.
"There wasn't a special screening for that," he said. "So we're going to go back and rescreen all of our soldiers."
Col. Arthur Wallace, deputy commander for nursing at Tripler Army Medical Center, said the hospital is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to improve and coordinate care.
"Tripler has recently launched training of all military personnel on recognizing PTSD and mild TBI and to encourage self-reporting and referrals" of other returning soldiers, he said. "We are also adding neuropsychologists and other clinical staff to assist with diagnosis and treatment."
Allen Hoe, a Vietnam veteran whose son, Nainoa, was killed by a sniper in Iraq, said the VA needs to do more to coordinate care for soldiers returning from Iraq and expand access to services.
Del Negro said her husband, whom she declined to identify, eventually received the care he needed at the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center in San Diego, and now works an administrative job at Schofield.
"My husband could barely keep his balance, let along figure out where he was supposed to go and who he was supposed to see," Del Negro said. "Unfortunately, the system he reported to didn't know, either."
Sen. Daniel Inouye said technological and medical advances help many more wounded veterans survive today than in World War II, when he lost an arm. But the care they receive is abbreviated by comparison, he said.
"Time, patience, counseling should also be part of the rehabilitation package," he said. "Our obligation does not end after the operating table."