By Sabrina Thompson
Union County has 2,500 registered veterans, which is approximately 10% of the population, according to census data and information provided by Veterans Services at the Center for Human Development. There are services provided, often free of charge, to these men and women, and their families, who have served their country. For some these services can be the difference between a successful return home and facing continuing challenges.
“Veterans seem to have a higher risk of mental health conditions due to difficulty transitioning back into civilian life,” Umatilla County Veterans Services Officer Glenn Scott said.
One of the difficulties in transitioning is that the culture of the military is very different from life at home, according to Union County Veterans Services Officer Brian Blais. Both Scott and Blais are former members of the military and have experienced the transition firsthand.
“After I left the Army I moved to Alaska,” Blais said. “I didn’t know veterans services was a thing. It wasn’t until I was an EOU student I learned about the services available to me.”
Blais got involved with veterans services programs and eventually took over the role at CHD after the previous services officer, Byron Whipple, retired in April of 2019. Since Blais’ induction into the role, he has focused on reaching out to those veterans who are not already engaged, and ensuring that those who are, are getting the services they need.
“Every community has a different focus,” Blais said. “Here, it is to get them all the services they are entitled to.”
Some of the services that veterans and their families are entitled to include health care, home loans, life insurance, education funding and career support. However, according to Blais, access to these services across the nation can be limited due to location and individuals’ knowledge about what benefits they are entitled to. He said he is working to help those in Union County access what they need.
One of the services that seems to be of high importance to veterans is access to mental health services. The nature of the military often has a lasting effect on veterans’ mental health, according to Scott. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans die by suicide every day, and about 18.5% of service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. To help combat this need, Blais organized an event Oct. 29 at the Center for Human Development in La Grande for veterans and their families to teach about mental health first aid.
The course, led by Guy McKay, a mental health first aid instructors goes over the signs of emotional distress and how to properly handle it. The class was first developed in Australia in 2001 and came to the U.S. in 2008.
“Everyone who knows CPR knows how to deal with the physical issues that arise,” McKay said. “We are teaching people how to deal with emotional issues.”
According to McKay, the course focuses on the acronym ALGEE, which stands for assess the threat to suicide, listen without judgment, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help and encourage self-help and other support strategies.
One attendee of the class said she came because she wanted more knowledge to help her husband, an Iraq veteran who has PTSD.
“There are times that he spends days in bed disconnected from life,” she said. “I want to have a better ability to deal with people with mental illness.”
Another service now being offered to veterans in the community is a same day clinic at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, Washington. This clinic gives vets the opportunity to have minor illnesses and injuries addressed without waiting for an appointment with their provider.
“As this new opportunity to meet veterans’ health care needs grows, the Walla Walla VA will monitor its effectiveness and be watching how veterans respond with the goal to expand the program,” a news release from the Walla Walla VA said. “Taking care of the veteran’s medical needs is the highest priority.”
An extension of the Walla Walla VA is located in La Grande. The community-based outpatient clinic is located at 202 12th St.
“The clinic is our area’s access point to the VA medical system and services,” Blais said. “The staff there are a valuable resource for our community.”