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Young vets talk to congressmen, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Discussion centers on how to help new generation of veterans

Two congressmen and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki met this morning with veterans of all ages at the VA Center in Livermore.

They toured the hospital, nursing home and administrative offices then sat down for a roundtable discussion that focused on issues affecting the new generation of veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and the need for educational benefits.

"Every person got a chance to speak," said U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D., 11th), who has made care and benefits for veterans a priority. "We got to talk about the backlog of veterans' claims, and the technical pressure for the California veterans."

He said he learned about the lack of communication among the veterans' groups on college campuses throughout the state.

"With a new generation of veterans returning home, it's critical that we address their needs and work to improve medical care and access to benefits," he said.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi (D., 10th) noted that the VA Center is in the 10th District and said this was the most comprehensive look he'd had at the facility.

"I was impressed by the extensive use of telemedicine," he said.

One veteran participant was Kyle Braun, a 2005 graduate of Amador Valley High School and now a student at Las Positas College, who served in Iraq with the Marines from 2007-08.

"The VA has a backlog of dealing with claims," said Braun, who is attending college on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. "It takes eight to 10 months, although they're trying their best."

He said that because he was stationed in California when he was discharged, the CalVets knew about him. But veterans discharged in other states are not tracked so the VA would not be aware of their unemployment or homelessness.

Another participant was Navy Special Operations veteran Ryan Sykes, 28, of San Ramon. He served in Somalia and Colombia, and did two tours in Iraq and five in Afghanistan before he sustained a brain injury.

"I have firsthand knowledge," said Sykes, who speaks slowly and uses a wheelchair. "I helped show people if you do the right thing and apply the right technique in certain areas, you get a response." He said he'd been treated in hospitals in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Texas among others, and he continues his rehabilitation locally.

Mike Conklin, founder of the Sentinels of Freedom, which provides housing and education for seriously injured veterans, including Sykes, to help them become self-sufficient, said one problem for the VA is finding those who need help.

"Some avoid getting help, for a variety of reasons," said Conklin, a San Ramon resident. "If you walk into a VA, it's almost impossible not to get help. It's a tremendous machine with services to serve veterans."

He also lauded retired Gen. Shinseki's ability to run the Veterans Administration, noting that he had served as Chief of Staff in the U.S. Army.

"He's transferred his Army skills to the VA," said Conklin.

The Veterans Administration plans to move VA care to new locations in the San Joaquin Valley and in Fremont. Each area will have a new outpatient clinic and a new nursing home, but no locations have been finalized.

There is also a proposal to partner with one of the existing hospitals, said McNerney. Acute care will be provided at the Palo Alto VA Center.

The VA is still deciding what to do with the 113-acre facility on Arroyo Road in rural Livermore.

"Secretary Shinseki wants to keep flexibility," McNerney said.

McNerney wrote a law to improve care for veterans with traumatic brain injuries and has said the 113 acres on Arroyo Road would make an excellent setting for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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