National Rural Health Day Raises Awareness for Veterans in Need

Young people living in rural zip codes are more likely to join the Army than others -- but when they return home, they're without basic services and help

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When Technical Sgt. Tom Marcum returned home to his wife on September 22, 2008, after nine months in Iraq, the couple of 18 years were elated to see each other. But the joy soon faded when April Marcum realized that, although her husband looked the same, he was not the same man she had known most of her life.

"Within a few days, I started noticing he was not himself," she said. He had told her about the explosion on the phone, but downplayed his injuries to just some ringing in his ears.

Sgt. Marcum was deployed as a combat arms weapons expert to the Ali Air Base in Iraq when he was injured in July 2008. He was getting a mobile armory ready for transition and working outside by himself when incoming mortar exploded 35 yards away.

After returning home, he would call his wife from his job at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia because he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be. He would have trouble remembering if he had eaten breakfast so he would just eat twice. But when Marcum sought treatment at the small medical clinic on the base, he was tested and told to just "suck it up and go back to work."

At a later evaluation at the Veterans Administration's Tampa Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center in Florida, he was diagnosed with a "traumatic brain injury with a blow-out fracture to the right orbital wall; he had vision, hearing, and cognition deficits with short-term memory loss and chronic migraines. He also sustained a right shoulder injury and has an otolith disorder." On top of all of that, Marcum was told he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today is the first National Rural Health Day, and VA Office of Rural Health (ORH) Director Mary Beth Skupien said she's proud of how far the office has come since it began three years ago. The office is most focused on getting veterans better access to care close to home and specialty care in their communities, she said.

Forty-one percent of veterans in the VA system live in rural areas, according to ORH. There are 22 million veterans, and 6.1 million live in rural areas, of which 3.3 million are enrolled in the VA system. A study from ORH found that distance was identified as the most important barrier for rural veterans seeking care.

Plus, soldiers from more recent wars are increasingly coming from rural areas, and rural VA users also are growing, according to the office. Young people living in rural zip codes are 22 percent more likely to join the Army.

April Marcum described the process of seeking medical care as "a lot of unknowns" for her husband and family members. They have two boys -- Jared, 14, and Gabe, 11, who was diagnosed with secondary post-traumatic stress disorder even before Marcum got his proper diagnosis. After finally navigating the system, April Marcum said they have found doctors who are making a real difference in their lives. "We have some truly amazing medical people that are on our side who want to help Tom as much as I do," she said.

But, like many other rural veterans, the problem is that the VA hospital they go to for this care is two hours away from their home in Ray City, Georgia, and the closest Vet Center is over an hour and a half away. There is a community-based outpatient clinic about 20 miles from their home, but April Marcum said the clinic is very limited in what can be treated there.

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Laura Phelps is a national security and politics reporter in Washington, D.C., for the Medill News Service. She has covered veterans issues and aviation security for UPI, Marketwatch.com and Military Times.

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