ANCHORAGE - Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake said Monday he was heartened by a meeting with National Guard members when he toured a remote Alaska village with U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
"They were out there in Kuwait, and they are doing very well now. They've been reunited with their families. It was a good visit, actually reassuring," said Peake, whose agency has come under congressional criticism that it might not be forthcoming in how well it treats veterans' mental health problems.
Peake and Stevens, R-Alaska, spent the Memorial Day weekend speaking to groups around the state, visiting health care facilities and speaking at veterans' events.
On Sunday, the two visited the Kuskokwim River town of Bethel, a commercial hub for 56 largely Yup'ik Eskimo villages in the widespread region. They also visited one of those villages, Quinhagak, where they met with eight Guardsmen back from Kuwait.
Peake spent the weekend also discussing progress made in telemedicine, which allows rural patients to tap into live online help from experts far away, he told The Associated Press Monday after returning from his visit to the bush. With 12 percent of Alaska veterans living in highly isolated areas far from VA clinics, Peake wants to see more strides made in applying the technology to postwar mental health issues.
"We can intervene early and keep folks from developing long term problems," said Peake, who started in December in the wake of widespread reports of dismal care received by troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stevens said he fully supports Peake's efforts.
"He is pioneering the concept of delivering these services to veterans without them having to stand in line," Stevens said.
Veterans in Bethel also met with Peake and Stevens, telling them local services for veterans need significant improvement in the town of 5,900. Veterans with no health insurance generally have to fly to an urban center like Anchorage, although Alaska Natives qualify for free care through services offered by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., a regional Native health organization.
A vast improvement would be VA reimbursements to local health care providers working with veterans, said Bob Herron, a member of the Bethel Veterans of Foreign Wars and a spokesman for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
Veterans also would greatly benefit if the VA offered local providers training in dealing with behavioral health issues, particularly for returning troops.
"The focus, most importantly, was on starting a very significant dialogue," Herron said. "It was hugely encouraging."
Another topic raised in their talks with veterans around Alaska was the proposed expansion of the GI bill to guarantee full college scholarships for those who serve in the military for three years.
Stevens said he voted with reservations for the legislation, which passed last week by the Democratic-led Senate, saying it would strip all incentives to stay in the military. But he succeeded in getting in his amendment to give rural veterans a $500 yearly allowance if they have to travel more than 500 miles to get their education.