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Nicholas Tolentino, a combat veteran from Exeter, talks with participants at a "military access summit" last week in Concord. (Shawne K. Wickham /Union Leader)

'Ask the Question' can open doors for veterans


CONCORD - There were two generals, two VA hospital directors, the state health commissioner and a slew of key providers at a "military access summit" last week to unveil new initiatives supporting those who have served.

But it was a young combat veteran who reminded everyone why it matters.

Nicholas Tolentino of Exeter served multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, earning a Purple Heart.

"I've been blown up; I've been shot," he told the audience. "I have lost a lot of friends. But I've come home," he said.

Tolentino, 37, serves on the state Legislative Commission on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and TBI (traumatic brain injury); he's been diagnosed with both.

But he said he hasn't always disclosed his status as a combat veteran because of the stigma he feels comes with that. "A feeling of being judged," he said. "No one likes that." There are other reasons, too. "Shame. Of the things I've had to do, the things I saw.... guilt. I came home. Two people in my vehicle that day didn't."

"We're fighting images in our head. Smells in our nose. The things we remember. The things we don't want to remember."

And that's why the state's new "Ask the Question" initiative, which came out of the commission's work, is so important, Tolentino said.

Ask the question

Run by Easter Seals New Hampshire under contract with DHHS, the campaign encourages providers to ask everyone they encounter: "Have you or any family member ever served in the military?"

The idea is to engage police, educators, medical and mental health providers, the courts, faith-based groups and social service professionals in getting veterans the services they have earned and may need.

"It is such a deceptively simple question and concept, but so incredibly powerful because it just opens up the conversation," said Nicholas Toumpas, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Stephanie Higgs, project manager of the "Ask the Question" campaign at Easter Seals said many former service members don't even think of themselves as "veterans." And that's why it's important for providers, police and others to ask those they encounter if they have ever served, she said.

The state also launched its Military Culture Training Initiative at the summit.DHHS has contracted with Portsmouth-based Dare Mighty Things to provide up to 50 training sessions over the next year to make providers more familiar with how military service affects individuals and their families."We are ready to go," said Jacqueline Bessette, project director at Dare Mighty Things.

Tolentino, a Navy hospital corpsman for 14 years, told the group that the way combat veterans behave sometimes could be misunderstood by those unfamiliar with military culture.

If a police officer stops him on the road, for instance, he'll likely appear fidgety. And wherever he is, he scans the room for the nearest exit and gets stressed if someone is blocking it.

It's not PTSD, he said. "I'm not combative. That's my training. To get out that door and be safe."

Maj. Gen. William Reddel, adjutant general of the New Hampshire National Guard, noted 3 million Americans have served and deployed since the 9/11 attacks. And often overlooked are the 2 million children affected by those deployments, he said.

Reddel said 52,000 service members have come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with visible wounds, including 1,500 amputees. But of equal concern, he said, are the more than 128,000 who suffer from PTSD and the more than 307,000 with TBI.

"If this nation breaks our military members or their families, whose job is it to take care of them?" Reddel asked. "It's our job."

Leading

New Hampshire's initiatives to improve access to services, Reddel said, are the first of their kind in the nation. "It's so important that every provider, every person that touches a veteran, knows what the right door will be to get them help," he said.

And those efforts cannot end when the wars do, he said. "It's a long-term commitment by this nation and this state to make sure we take care of veterans, service members and their families.

"State leaders also discussed efforts among the mental health and medical communities to improve access to services for military members, veterans and their families.

Danielle Ocker, acting director at the Manchester VA, acknowledged that the initial rollout of the Veterans Choice program, which allows most New Hampshire veterans to seek medical care in their local communities, has been confusing for veterans and providers alike.

The Manchester VA has case managers in its Choice program office to help patients navigate the new system, Ocker said. "When you send patients outside the system, you have to rely that there's no gaps in that system or veterans can get lost in those gaps," she said.

Deborah Amdur is director of the White River Junction VA Medical Center, which serves veterans from four western counties in New Hampshire. She said New Hampshire's level of collaboration and commitment to those who serve is unlike anything she's seen elsewhere.

She said it's critical that everyone who encounters military members or families knows the full range of help available, regardless of where those individuals seek services. "It's essential that we are sitting at the table together," she said.

Since October, Toumpas said, DHHS has awarded about $2.5 million in "military access" contracts, all funded through a federal program. That includes $1.3 million for the Ask the Question campaign; $500,000 for Veterans Count; $460,000 for community mental health supports; and $230,000 for the military culture training.

Toumpas said it didn't take any new infrastructure to launch these initiatives.

"It's really about creating the appropriate linkages out in the community, making people aware of what the needs are, and then allowing them to do what they do best and focus on the needs of our veterans, service members and their families," he said.

In 2003, Tolentino's unit in Iraq searched the burned-out rubble of vehicles from the ambushed convoy that included captured American soldier Jessica Lynch, who was later rescued. "Thankfully, from this, five families got closure from what we were able to recover," he said.

But many veterans still struggle with their wartime experiences, he said.

"Some people went through some horrific things, but they've come home. Be respectful of that," he said.

"Ask the question."

.

For more: askthequestionnh.com

swickham@unionleader.com


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