After serving nine years in the Army, Anthony Robinson, 63, battled depression, went through a divorce, fell into homelessness, and mostly let his health slide.
“I was just doing what I could do to survive,” said Robinson, of East Patchogue, who did stints in Germany and Turkey while in the service and says he struggled with substance abuse before seeking treatment.
With veterans like Robinson in mind, a number of area nongovernment health providers and treatment programs hosted a symposium Friday to help vulnerable veterans and their families understand the challenges veterans face and find the help that is available to them.
The daylong gathering, which was held on the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College, drew representatives from rehab centers, a peer support group, hospital giant Northwell Health, and the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, in addition to the Suffolk County government and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Veterans advocates say any of a number of service-related factors can challenge the health of veterans — many of them relatively unfamiliar to parents, spouses or other individuals who could otherwise help them get the care they need.
A psychological condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can develop after individuals are exposed to extreme violence, can lead some individuals to shun contact with others, including professionals or even family members who could help them cope.
“PTSD itself creates social phobia, which can isolate them from other veterans and even family members who otherwise might help them,” said Steven Chassman, director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, which was one of the presenters.
Individuals who struggle with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries while still enlisted in the service often are kicked out of the military with less than honorable discharges, which can leave them ineligible for VA-provided psychological care and other assistance just when they need it most.
And because veterans are often eager to leave memories of military life behind even when they have clean records, they can be unwilling to turn to the VA for for help, a fact advocates say makes private-sector health providers an essential alternative.
“They look at the VA as the big bad government,” said Dave Rogers, a 15-year veteran and former Army staff sergeant, who is commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2913 in Patchogue. “Smaller organizations like these can be more approachable.”
Furthermore, veterans often are treated with medications that can conflict with each other and cause problems of their own: opiates for pain, sleep medication for insomnia, anti-anxiety drugs to calm nightmares, and anti-depressants to lift their mood.
“Then they are greeted with welcome-home drinks, and they find themselves self-medicating,” Chassman said.
Several veterans who attended the health expo said they were happy to learn of alternatives to the VA.
“The VA is great, and I have a lot of respect for it,” said Kevin McNeil, 55, a former Army soldier from Melville who came to the expo with Robinson. “But it is good to know there is a lot more help out there. They are all extending a hand to help us, and that is a good feeling.”