For more than a decade, U.S. service members have been going to combat zones in the Middle East, where they become targets for bullets and roadside bombs.
When the wounded ones come home, they go to VA hospitals to learn how to avoid hazards like falling down steps.
The irony isn't lost on them, said Dr. Frederick Struthers, the Van Zandt VA Medical Center's chief of physical and rehabilitative medicine, at a ceremonial opening Wednesday for a $3.6 million, 8,500-square-foot addition to house his department.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center occupational therapist Jamie Oravec (right) shows outpatient dietician Steve Beschler a new total body recumbent stepper during open house of the new physical, occupational and speech therapy building Wednesday. The center opened a $3.6 million addition Wednesday.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center physical, occupational and speech therapy supervisor Tim Skarada demonstrates the new variable-speed underwater treadmill for aquatic therapy to Barbara Babiak of the Health Education Management department.
"They'll say, 'This is crazy,'" said Struthers, standing near an accessible kitchen, bath and bedroom, where vets relearn household tasks under the watchword "safety." "'[They'll say] I was over there and people were shooting at me.'"
The new facility, plus a similar-sized, $2.5 million addition for department offices currently under construction next door, will enable Struthers' 18-member staff to help wounded vets make the transition better, Struthers and hospital spokeswoman Andrea Young said.
The old department on the second floor was only a quarter as big with fewer rooms and less equipment, they said.
Yet it hosted 15,000 visits last year.
The new facility should be even busier, as the hospital expects an annual 20 percent growth in the rehab patient count.
But the new one offers much more privacy, weight machines that are adaptable for wheelchairs, room for group work that encourages compliance with exercise routines, a sling on an overhead track to support unsteady walkers and an underwater treadmill for low-impact, high resistance workouts.
Still, even with the newest facilities, transition from combat to civilian life isn't easy for the wounded.
In war zones, service members were macho men with big weapons, Struthers said.
Back home, they struggle with ordinary tasks.
Many have a hard time admitting they need help, Struthers said.
Some can't commit to their own rehabilitation, because of guilt - maybe for failing to save a buddy - and others can't commit because of rage at those who killed that buddy.
Many struggle to get over their difficulties because they can't express their troubling thoughts, believing that to do so would make them seem "horrible," he said.
It helps to have staffers with combat experience, because they can understand without having to probe too much, Struthers said.
The staff has several such combat veterans, including Struthers himself, who fought in Vietnam.
Veterans who must relearn household tasks - because of fresh combat wounds, deficits from old wounds that surface due to age or injuries or illnesses - benefit from close analyses of actions that the rest of us take for granted, Struthers said.
Staffers work with those patients to pre-plan how to get into the bathtub, for example - sitting down on a special seat at first, shifting one leg over the edge and perhaps lifting the other with a special device, he said.
The staffers also work with wives, friends and children of veterans, teaching them how to help.
They require a higher level of accomplishment for veterans who live alone.
The "safety" mantra in the physical and occupational rehabilitation department under Struthers may be ironic to those who have served in acute danger.
But the wounded returnees also find it therapeutic, the doctor agreed.
"They [know] we care about them," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.