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Context matters: Identifying veterans' needs

New Hampshire Sunday News

January 29. 2018 10:18PM
Rebecca Searles of Concord, pictured with her husband Daniel and their 4-year-old son David, says the Ask the Question initiative can make a huge difference in the lives of military families like hers. (COURTESY)

It was a simple idea. Ask the question:

“Have you or any member of your family ever served in the military?”

The answer would give health-care providers, educators, police and others a better sense of what experiences and issues individuals might be dealing with, and how best to support them.

The federal grant that created the Ask the Question initiative ended 18 months ago, but the program has taken root across New Hampshire, according to Jo Moncher, bureau chief of community-based military programs at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The grant money was aimed at strengthening community-based initiatives; New Hampshire was the only state that used its funding to support military programs, Moncher said.

There was a public awareness campaign to get providers to “ask the question,” and “military culture” trainings to better prepare them to help those who answer “yes.” Community mental health centers identified staff members to serve as military liaisons.

Moncher, a veteran, has shepherded the program from its start. And now, she said, “It’s evolving.”

She’s heard the stories of the real impacts it is having on veterans’ lives:

• A police officer who drove a veteran to the VA Medical Center for help after an encounter.

• An emergency responder who noticed a veteran’s license plate at the scene of a house fire and took him on the spot to the VA to replace his medications.

• A congressional staffer who discovered that a veteran had never received the military pension he was due — and helped him get it.

Rebecca Searles of Concord never expected to use her social worker training in her own family. But after her husband returned from Iraq in 2011, she said, he was struggling with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

At the same time, their son was born with a medical condition that required open-heart surgery when he was just 8 days old.

“And even though I was going to a medical facility on a regular basis, nobody knew what we were living with because nobody ever asked,” Searles said.

So she, as she puts it, swapped her “wife hat” for her “social worker hat” and got her husband the help he needed from the VA. He also now works at the Manchester medical center.

After her family’s experience, Searles is passionate about promoting Ask the Question. She’s worked with her employer to connect clients to services and benefits many didn’t even know existed, she said.

“As military families, we take care of our own but we can’t do it alone anymore,” Searles said. “We need our community; we need our providers; we need to know we matter and that all we have sacrificed for hasn’t gone unnoticed.”

Advocate at hospital

Tracie Tankevich is a financial counselor at Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester. She got interested in improving services for veterans when she was doing research into Veterans Choice, which allows veterans to seek medical care at civilian hospitals.

Now she’s the veterans advocate at the hospital; there’s a dedicated line that rings at her desk for veterans and military families to call.

Frisbie has started yoga and acupuncture programs for veterans and their families. And they “ask the question” as part of the registration process, she said.

“They put their life on the line for us and our country and our community,” she said. “And veterans do not ask for themselves. So if I have that opportunity to help them in any way, I am grateful.”

New ways of doing things

Just asking the question is giving state officials critical data, Moncher said. They’ve learned that 17 percent of the more than 20,000 clients served each month by the state’s 10 community mental health services are veterans or military family members, she said.

That kind of knowledge leads to new ways of doing things, she said.

Patty Driscoll is director of adult services at Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth. She became the military liaison there when it was a grant-funded position, and has continued the work since the funding ended.

“I’ve always had a passion and sense of obligation and respect for our military,” Driscoll said.

Ask the Question is part of all initial screenings, and staff members are trained to respond appropriately, Driscoll said. “We ask the question, and we can handle any answer that we get now,” she said.

Her agency has strengthened its ties with the VA, Driscoll said. And it now accepts Tricare, the military insurance program.

“We know if someone is ready to get help, you don’t want to have too many delays in that,” she said. “You want to be able to open the door right away.”

Educational benefits

Liz Pontacoloni, the assistant registrar at NHTI in Concord, is also the college’s certifying officer for veteran educational benefits. There are questions about military service and veterans benefits on the NHTI application, she said.

But it’s not just about financial aid, Pontacoloni said. Some students may have a hard time making the transition from military to civilian life.

“My personal opinion is that by asking that simple question, it opens the door for resources that these students ... aren’t aware of,” she said.

Pontacoloni didn’t serve in the military herself, but her dad and her husband did. She was able to go to college because of her father’s GI benefits, she said.

So her current work, she said, feels like coming “full circle.”

Moncher said she’s proudest of the partnerships among military, veterans and civilian organizations here. “We have a moral obligation to serve our military,” she said. “And Ask the Question provides an opportunity for all of us to participate.”

Now that the program has taken root, Moncher said the next step is to collect best practices to share with providers across the state.

What New Hampshire created has become a model for other states, she said. “And together we’re becoming a stronger country.”

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