I drove to the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City with a friend who did three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as a result, sticks to back roads so heavy traffic doesn't kick off his PTSD.
But this isn't about him. He told me "if you just sit in the lobby and look who's coming in, you'll get a story," and I wanted to check.
It breaks your heart. Old vets stagger or wheel or hobble in, trailing oxygen cords and other medical gear. You've got to admire their pride: Almost every one wears a cap proclaiming what wars he or she fought in.
There's also a revelation: A lot of them aren't old. I saw men and women in their 20s and 30s. They are products, like my friend, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are so many of them the VA set up a special section just to deal with their needs.
How many? There are 11,000 from those two wars in this VA center's "catchment" area: Utah and parts of surrounding states.
Maria Fruin, an RN in charge of the program for vets from the current wars, said she has 8,500 registered. Of those, half actually come in for services and she's working to raise the percentage.
I never knew: 10 percent of returning combat vets are women. Female soldiers, sailors and Marines aren't officially approved for combat, but bullets and IEDs don't care about official policy.
Fruin is there to help them all with readjustment issues. Those range from mild culture shock and figuring out how to deal with the electric bill to full-blown PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
The cases that get all the press are extreme PTSD and TBI. Twelve percent of returnees have TBI to some extent. "Of those, 95 percent are going to come out of it almost as good as when they left," she said, but that "almost" is tricky, and that other 5 percent will need a lot of help.
PTSD affects 17 percent "and we provide several therapies with that issue, hopefully to come out of it on the other side." But she went out of her way to make one thing clear: You don't have to have either to have readjustment issues. Those issues do not mean you are sick.
"It would be abnormal to not have a readjustment phase," she said. She's hoping her program can intervene early so victims don't end up living lives of frustration and anger like so many World War II, Korean and Vietnam vets did, and still do.
"It's men and women getting trained to be soldiers and Marines and in a combat situation, and it's not something you can turn off," she said.
She depends on families to work with the returning soldiers on that.
"The Army is getting good about educating the family about expectations, so we're here, basically, to help them do that. It's different than any other conflict because there's never been a program at the VA that's dedicated to one group of veterans."
Vietnam vets tell her, understandably, that "somebody should have had this for us, too," and she agrees. "We're learning."
Outreach is critical. Getting returning vets to check in with the program can make a huge difference in their lives.
If you know a returned Iraq/Afghan vet who ought to be working with Maria, have them give her a call at 800-613-4012, extension 5246. She's very nice.
And don't feel weird about going down to the VA. You will have lots of company.
Coming Sunday: No longer just a man's VA.