Advocates for Guard health care see progress

Posted April 10, 2009, at 9:21 p.m.

Members of a group charged with improving the health and safety of Maine’s citizen soldiers said Friday that their work is bearing fruit.

Barbara Damon-Day of Newcastle fought for and was named chairman in 2007 of the Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard. Her 41-year-old son, Patrick Damon, a member of the Maine Army Guard, died suddenly in Afghanistan in 2006 after receiving a series of vaccines.

The group’s initial report, issued earlier this week, has been endorsed unanimously by the Legislature. A joint resolution including recommendations at the federal level has been sent to Congress and to the Obama White House.

“What’s driven the work of this commission to this point is me losing my son,” Damon-Day said in a recent interview. With the release of the group’s report, she said, she soon will step down from the commission and entrust its future to others.

“The word that’s got to get out there is that if people don’t come forward — veterans and their families who have suffered noncombat illnesses and deaths — nothing will change,” she said.

The nine-member Commission to Protect the Lives and Health of Members of the Maine National Guard, created by the 123rd Legislature, has met regularly to take testimony from service members and their families on the adequacy of health and safety measures provided through the Maine National Guard, the federal Depart-ment of Defense and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

The commission has reviewed concerns such as the safety of mandatory anthrax vaccines, the need to screen for traumatic brain injury before and after deployment, and the ability of Guard members to obtain their military health records once they return to their civilian clinicians.

The commission’s report lists a number of state-level accomplishments over the past three years, including:

ä A new informational site for military members and veterans linked to the Web site of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

ä The initiation of pre- and post-deployment brain function testing for all Maine troops.

ä A “vaccination buddies” program for Guard members who undergo a mandated battery of pre-deployment inoculations.

ä An agreement to add the cause of death to an existing state database of deceased military veterans.

Peter Ogden, director of the Bureau of Veterans Services within the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, said the commission has helped identify vulnerabilities unique to Guard members.

While the Maine National Guard is responsible for certain aspects of troop health — such as completing a schedule of routine physicals and medical screenings — that responsibility ceases when troops deploy.

“Once they get on the bus, they don’t belong to us anymore until they get back to Maine,” Ogden said. In between, he said, troops may be exposed to a battery of immunizations, toxic environmental hazards such as depleted uranium and agents of chemical warfare, profound emotional traumas and other dangers. The full impact of these exposures may not become evident for years after service members return from deployment, he noted.

The work of the commission is aimed at augmenting the care troops receive through the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and developing a state-level system of support for troops and their families, Ogden said.

Among the eight recommendations sent to the White House and to Maine’s congressional delegation by the unanimous consent of the Legislature and accompanied by a letter from Gov. John Baldacci are:

ä A stepped-up effort to diagnose and treat illnesses related to military service.

ä Intensified research into the safety of vaccines against anthrax and smallpox.

ä An improved process for determining medical disability status.

Dr. Meryl Nass, a Bar Harbor-based physician with internationally recognized expertise in the anthrax vaccine, serves on the commission. She said the process of arriving at the report and the recommendations released this week has been gratifying.

The commission is made up of “people with very different agendas and beliefs” about the military and its health system, she said. While initial meetings were rancorous, “over time, it seemed like everybody came together and basically agreed” on the need to improve existing noncombat health and safety provisions for troops.

President Obama’s stated commitment to improve the funding and effectiveness of health care for military members and veterans is heartening, even as problems within those systems continue to unfold, Nass said, referring to a report this week from Salon.com that the Army may be encouraging medical providers not to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder.

With the change in administration, “there’s a sense that things that seemed unattainable a year ago are now possible,” Nass said.

On the Web: http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/documents/Commission_to_Protect_the_Lives_and_Health_of_Members_of_the_Maine_National_Guard.pdf

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