Program unlike any other in the country to provide substance abuse care for Washington and Aroostook county veterans
By Natalie Bazinet
CARIBOU — A crowd of well over 30 individuals, from Congressman Michaud and senatorial representatives to esteemed mental health professionals, gathered at the central offices of Aroostook Mental Health Center on Monday afternoon to celebrate the ceremonious launch of Operation Outreach, a unique program designed to help veterans suffering from substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders.
Aroostook Republican photo/Natalie Bazinet
Joseph Owens, VA liaison for Operation Outreach, will promote education of the newly-implemented treatment program throughout the county, ensuring that veterans, family members, significant other and referral sources are aware of the program’s services and how to access them when help is needed.
With over two year’s preparation going into the collaboratively founded program — prepared by representatives of AMHC and Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center specifically for veterans in Aroostook and Washington counties — the program will offer veterans direct access to substance abuse services without having to travel down to Augusta or to a Veterans Affairs center, which meant 10 hours of just driving for the average County veteran which was, according to Caribou Veteran Peter Meisburger a deterrent to seeking treatment for many of the area’s veterans.
“The beauty of this program is that veterans are being serviced right in their own backyards, and they don’t have to do that five-hour trip to Togas and five hours back,” he said. “You don’t get much better than that.”
Aside from the 11 new treatment locations —Bangor, Calais, Caribou, Lincoln, Rumford, Saco, Fort Kent and Houlton — Operation Outreach also features a designated VA Liaison, retired U.S. Navy combat veteran Joseph Owens, whose sole function is to ensure that veterans, family members, significant others and referral sources are aware of the program’s services and how to access them when help is needed.
What will help make Owens effective as the VA Liaison in creating awareness and promoting education and treatment options for substance abuse to the area’s veterans is the fact that he can relate to their situation.
Speaking from his experiences, Owens told those in attendance a little about his own struggles.
Aroostook Republican photo/Natalie Bazinet
Congressman Mike Michaud spoke positively about Operation Outreach and what it means for veterans who live in rural communities. Michaud is the current ranking-member of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health and advocated for increased VA funding to improve veterans substance abuse treatment options as well as increasing the number of service sites available for veterans.
“I am a veteran,” he told the room, “I’ve been in combat in the Persian Gulf and Somalia; I have seen the horrors of war. I’ve been woken up from sleep by my wife, looking as if she’d seen a ghost; I have self-medicated to get to sleep at night,” he said. “I will carry these images of war with me for the rest of my life, but I have also sought help for these problems from the very people in this room.
“I took this job for Operation Outreach as a veteran liaison to be that person with my hand out to help veterans who need it,” Owens said. “[They] need programs like Operation Outreach that help bring hope, friendship and joy while giving life back to our veterans.”
According to Chief Executive Officer George Disy, LCSW, Operation Outreach offers a nearby location for veterans to receive substance abuse services such as crisis evaluation, crisis stabilization, ambulatory alcohol and drug detoxification, 28-day residential treatment, Suboxone opiate replacement therapy, intensive and routine outpatient counseling, case management, support groups, and 12-step programs.
“The other thing that we’re really excited about is that the extension of these service will enable veterans to receive services in each location at no cost,” Disy said.
The need for a program like Operation Outreach was exemplified by Dr. Mary Tibbets, director of mental health services at Togas during her speech at the celebration, during which she cited the tremendous substance use and substance abuse dependence in Maine as a whole and referred to the common saying that there are more deaths from opiate dependence and poisoning in Maine that there were motor vehicle accidents every year “and we all need to do more to help people get back on their feet.”
Operation Outreach marks, for the first time in the history of the nation, an opportunity for veterans to be provided seamless care as AMHC health officials will be able to input documentation into veterans medical records almost as if they were virtual VA employees.
“Veterans come to AMHC every day, and they come to us just like anybody else,” said AMHC Director of Marketing and Development Jamie Owens. “The difference with this program is that it’s a formal relationship with funding provided by the VA so that there are not barriers for the veterans. As Dr. Tibbets identified, our staff can access and document their chart right in their medical record online and provide more seamless care; it’s almost like we’re an extension of Togas,” she added.
According to statistics of the United States Substance and Mental Health Services, there’s a slightly higher prevalence for veterans to incur substance abuse issues, “whether it be a result of seeing combat or PTSD, it’s not shattering news that there’s a connection between the two, and that’s what’s so important about this program is that it treats substance abuse and it also treats mental health diagnosis concurrent with it, so it will really deal with the issues,” Jamie Owens said, “and treating the person as a whole is the best practice treatment.”
There were numerous speeches presented during the Operation Outreach launching ceremony, but whether the sentiment was coming from letters issued from Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins or Congressman Michaud’s personal speech, they all echoed their excitement for the program and the necessity of supporting our veterans — whether they live in rural areas or otherwise.
Information regarding Operation Outreach can be obtained by contacting Joseph Owens at 493-3361 or Kristy Rowe, Togas VAMC mental health services health systems specialist at 623-8411 ext.4935.
“[Veterans] are young and old, rich and poor, black and white and almost every category in-between … some have endured great hardships — separation from family, drastically altered lifestyles and the horrors of war — and all sacrificed something so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we do today,” said Joseph Owens. “God bless all of you, God bless our veterans, and God bless America.”