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Who Ya Gonna Call?

Reprinted from PN March 2011

Employers need to know the facts about TBI and PTSD, plus support and education concerning how to assist returning vets with their transition.

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According to a Chinese proverb, “War does not determine who is right, war determines who is left.”

Those left probably have serious disabilities. An Associated Press report finds the number of returning U.S. wounded still rising and “especially acute” among those from Afghanistan: amputations, burns, and brain injuries.

Of particular concern are so-called hidden wounds: traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since 2007, more than 70,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with TBI, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center asserts.

The wounds may render the soldiers unable to do their former jobs. What are the options for retraining to be productive again? What financial aid is available during retraining? Are there agencies to help disabled vets find new positions?

Vets with service-related disabilities are concentrated in the South and rural areas, the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute reports. “The concentration … is largely because vets represent a higher percentage of the total population in these places,” says report co-author Beth Mattingly, Carsey’s director of research on vulnerable families.

“We should recognize that rural places and the South may be especially in need of facilities to aid disabled veterans,” Mattingly admonishes. The high proportion in such areas presents the “compound challenge” of long-distance transportation to obtain services.

Among other key findings were:

- Nearly 1.5% of U.S. adults are vets with service-related disabilities.

- In the South, an estimated 1.75% of adults are vets with such disabilities—significantly higher than any other region.

The statistics and human toll worry Ron Drach, of Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS), and Michael Reardon, of America’s Heroes at Work (AHW) at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). They voiced concerns and counsel at the annual World Congress on Disabilities and Expo in Jacksonville, Fla.

The focus was on supporting the employment success of veterans with TBI and PTSD (the “invisible” wounds of war, and the signature injuries of the Middle East conflicts). TBI and PTSD can have similar symptoms and behaviors, Drach claims.

These can include headaches, vertigo, balance problems, anxiety, sleep disturbance, short-term memory deficits, and poor decision-making. Such symptoms, Reardon explains, can sometimes cause difficulties as troops transition, especially into the workplace.

Drach attests to that. A medically retired sergeant after he lost a leg in Vietnam, he left the Army with a Purple Heart and broken dreams. He found renewed purpose aiding other disabled vets.

After time with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), he joined DAV’s Pittsburgh office. In 1975, he became the U.S. employment director—the first Vietnam vet as a DAV director. He was known as an authority on job issues affecting vets and others with disabilities. His duties had him provide input for U.S. response to the needs of vets hurt by PTSD, homelessness, socio-economic issues, racial/gender discrimination, Social Security disability benefits, plus efforts to remove barriers that impede disabled employment.

At VETS, Drach directs government affairs on all legislative employment issues that affect the departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, and Defense. He says simple workplace supports can help wounded vets succeed on the job, and that employment can play a major role in recovery.

Conversely, employers need to know the facts about TBI and PTSD, plus support and education concerning how to assist these returning vets with their transition.

Drach insists TBI and PTSD aren’t unique to vets; some first responders experience PTSD. More than 1.4 million Americans sustain TBI every year (Brain Injury Association of America). Employees who manage their symptoms through medication or psychotherapy are very unlikely to pose a threat. Employers can mitigate vulnerabilities to stress by providing a job accommodation.

Such workplace supports are generally simple and inexpensive to implement. By employing a vet with TBI or PTSD, Drach adds, businesses can contribute to his/her recovery and have bottom-line benefits from an experienced vet employee.

There to assist is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN, 800-526-7234 / 877-781-9403 [TTY]), with free, personal help to employers on issues related to employees with disabilities, including reasonable job accommodations, workplace productivity enhancements, and data regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other disability legislation.

AHW, managed by ODEP and VETS along with other federal agencies engaged in TBI and PTSD programs, provides educational materials on its website produced collaboratively with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and TBI, Defense and Veterans’ Brain Injury Center, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and JAN.

The site, Reardon explains, educates employers, Human Resources professionals, the work-force development system, and vocational rehabilitation professionals on accommodations they can make for employees with a brain injury or combat stress.

The site features the usual employer questions about returning vets with TBI and/or PTSD, fact sheets and reference guides on TBI and PTSD vis-a-vis employment, Web-based training tools on accommodations for employees with TBI/

PTSD, practices for helping those with TBI/PTSD succeed, vets employment successes, and links to other TBI, PTSD, and veterans employment resources.

According to Reardon, some related employer questions are:

- What should employers do if they suspect an employee is struggling with TBI and/or PTSD?

- Why do vets make great employees?

- How can employers find and hire a disabled vet?

- What are the tax incentives for hiring a disabled vet?

- What specific tasks are problematic?

Some accommodations for TBI, Reardon notes, are flexible scheduling, longer or more frequent breaks, added time to learn new responsibilities, supportive job coaches/ mentors, job-sharing opportunities, daily to-do lists and check off as completed, a special calendar to mark meetings and deadlines, and written and verbal instructions.

Some accommodations for PTSD, he adds, are daily/weekly task list, reduce distractions in the work environment, divide large assignments into smaller tasks/steps, a supervisor to answer employee’s questions, stress-management techniques to handle frustration, allow calls during work to doctors/others as needed, and allow for a flexible start time or end time or telecommuting.

 

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