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Bay Shore facility to treat veterans, families

Kenneth Storz, a retired U.S. Army Reservist, talks

Kenneth Storz, a retired U.S. Army Reservist, talks with Dr. Robert Petzel at the opening of the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and their families in Bay Shore. (Dec. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Kenneth Storz, a retired Army Reserve colonel, said he and his family struggled to adjust to his return from combat in Iraq in 2006. His son was resentful. His daughter was withdrawn.

But because the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility at Northport cannot routinely provide mental health care to children, Storz said he could not go there for the family psychotherapy he felt was needed to help his family be whole again.

"I had been away at combat for a year," said Storz, 53, of Garden City. "We needed to find out what the new normal would be."

With an eye toward helping military families like his adjust to life after combat, the VA and the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System are creating a joint mental health and primary care facility in Bay Shore.

The facility, known as the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families, will allow spouses and children of veterans to receive mental health services regardless of whether they come with the veteran.

Dr. Robert Petzel, who oversees the VA's national health system, said developing an approach that allows families to be included is a "long overdue" step forward.

"We're here to treat complex human beings," Petzel said during a visit last week to the Bay Shore facility. "And bringing their families into the treatment equation is something we should have started doing years ago."

The facility, which will not be fully operational until January, will consist of two divisions.

In one wing, North Shore/LIJ psychiatrists and staff will offer mental health services to veterans' families. In another, VA staff will offer mental health services and primary health care to veterans.

Currently, the VA only provides mental health services to spouses and children if that care is linked to a course of therapy prescribed for the veteran, according to Charlene Thomesen, the Northport VA's associate chief for mental health.

Thomesen said consolidating mental health and primary care at a single facility would allow primary care doctors and psychotherapists to better collaborate after spotting problems common among military families, such as anxieties related to a combat deployment.

With about 150,000 veterans, Long Island is home to the nation's 10th largest veterans population, according to the VA.

The combined facility at 132 E. Main St. was made possible in part by a $1 million donation from Frank Feinberg, 89, of Locust Valley.

Feinberg, who survived World War II's Battle of the Bulge and then worked in the wine industry, said he believes veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with greater stresses than troops of his generation bore.

"They're going to war with people who don't wear a uniform," Feinberg said. "They don't know who they're fighting. They don't know who the enemy is."

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