President Bush, the vets and the VA

With the Department of Veterans Affairs coming under attack, meanwhile down in Texas, on the ranch of the former president, another way was being shown to support our vets. This past week former President George W. Bush brought together wounded veterans and active soldiers to honor them with a mountain bike ride. The message was clear – even when you leave active duty, we will still care for you.

Getting back on the bike after a fall was more than just a metaphor for recovery – it was a crucial part of it. The leader who sent these men and women to war was showing the compassion and commitment needed to help them return to society and resume a meaningful life.

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"Every vet here has had to overcome difficult circumstances and they are now riding difficult bike trails and the symbol is you can succeed," Bush said to me in an interview. 

The healing message of the three-day bike ride was something the Veterans Affairs would not have had the sensitivity to encompass. It is clear that non-governmental solutions are needed to support our vets in a more personal way.

"Bush Institute research has identified that there is a significant enduring role for the private sector, philanthropies and non-profits," said Colonel Miguel Howe (retired), director of the new Military Service Initiative at the Bush Institute. "They are critical to stepping in where the government cannot and creating a successful transition for all our post 9-11 veterans and their families."

Bush described the VA as “a large bureaucracy.” “And sometimes with large bureaucracies,” he said, “its hard to create efficiencies. And so I understand the frustrations people have about the VA. The good news is that there is a group of private sector NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are helping to fill the void.”

NGOs along with the Bush Institute are helping the vets to retool in an effort to find jobs. "We are also helping bridge the language gap between employer and employee,” Bush said. “For example, if a guy writes on his employment form, I'm a sniper, well an employer’s going to say, well I don’t need to hire a sniper. If he were to put on it my skill set in the military required patience, discipline, practice, he (the employer) might say well that’s the kind of person I want to hire.”

The bike ride was supported this year by non-governmental organizations including Wasatch Adaptive Sports, Hire Heroes USA, and the Green Beret Foundation. Hire Heroes USA is helping the vets get jobs. The Green Beret Foundation is actively researching the use of hyperbaric oxygen to treat veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury.

The Military Services Initiative is focusing this year on the need to destigmatize post-traumatic stress, while the VA has come under criticism for its inadequate recognition and treatment of the condition.

“Some of the people riding mountain bikes here have PTS (post-traumatic stress),” Bush said. “Mountain biking is helping them get back to as normal a life as possible. And that’s not a VA function, its a private sector function.”

Bush wants to drop the “D” for disorder, because “if its called a disorder, somebody’s likely to say I don’t want to hire somebody with a disorder.”

Howe said that “post-traumatic stress comes in a number of different ways. It’s an injury of war but it’s a treatable injury.”

The outdated VA system is “full of people who care a lot about our vets,” President Bush said. But at the bike ride the optimism was almost palpable and it seemed to me that many vets were getting more from riding with their brethren or working with a foundation to retool than from waiting on line at the VA for services that often don’t solve their problems.

Siegel is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a Fox News medical correspondent.