Lori DeYoung: For our veterans

Program offers care, compassion, treatment for veterans

When Herschel "Tony" Davis walked through the doors of Building 98 to receive treatment for his alcohol addiction, he was accompanied by his 16-year-old daughter, who had become his designated driver during one of his many episodes of care at the VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville.

It was on these trips to Danville from their home in Fithian when her father reminisced, both with fondness and sadness, about the fellow and fallen comrades he had during his Purple Heart-awarded combat as an Army Air Corps soldier in World War II.

However, it was the sense of belonging and pride that seemed to re-emerge in her father once he entered the grounds of the Department of Veterans Affairs that his daughter, Lori DeYoung, more clearly remembers: "When I would bring him to the VA for another admission, he would proudly introduce me to other soldiers from his era or to the caring staff that he considered a part of his family. As a teenager, I didn't think I could listen to another war story. But, now as an adult and provider of care to our veterans at VA Illiana, I realize that it was and is that sense of camaraderie that is so present here which is a critical component to healing those wounds that are not so visible. My dad was wounded in many ways during his time of serving our country and during the civilian life which followed. He used alcohol to self-medicate and numb himself from those things that he couldn't talk about. But, it was the kindness and compassion of the VA Illiana staff that helped him heal, giving him the care that he needed for both his alcohol addiction and for the cancer that eventually took his life in 1985. He died with over a year of sobriety under his belt, thanks to them. That is why I consider it an honor to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. I want to help care for our veterans in the same way that those before me did when they not only provided treatment to my dad, but when they gave him back a sense of honor and pride that he once had as a young soldier for our country."

As Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO) coordinator, DeYoung spends her days trying to locate veterans who have criminal cases, which can often be attributed to unidentified or untreated mental health and substance abuse issues.

While she and colleague Rebecca Sanders, both licensed clinical social workers, travel across the 34-county catchment area of VA Illiana, it is the partnerships that they have built with law enforcement and jail staff, probation departments, public defenders, state's attorneys and specialty courts which have helped them identify, enroll, coordinate and monitor the care for an average of 65 justice-involved veterans per month. Due to VJO outreach efforts since October 2009, approximately 50 veterans who had never enrolled in the VA system or had dropped out of care for more than two years were able to receive assistance by the program and obtain treatment as a sentencing alternative to incarceration. VJO staff have successfully accomplished this objective by conducting jail outreach to identify and enroll eligible veterans, by providing police in-service trainings on VA services, and collaborating with existing drug, mental health, and general docket courts to identify and coordinate treatment alternatives to incarceration. The first Veteran's Court in Illiana's catchment area was implemented in Peoria County in October 2012.

The Veterans Justice Outreach program was implemented in each of the 150-plus Department of Veteran Affairs medical centers in 2009. VA Illiana has two VJO staff covering the catchment area, which extends from the main facility in Danville to the Community Based Outpatient Clinics in the Decatur, Springfield, Peoria, Mattoon and West Lafayette, Ind., areas.

The purpose of the VJO initiative is to avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration by ensuring that eligible justice-involved veterans have access to mental health, substance abuse and primary care services. It is estimated that veterans comprise approximately 9-11 percent of all individuals incarcerated in county, state and federal correctional facilities. Given the negative impact that incarceration has upon the ability to find or maintain a job as well as to avoid homelessness, the Department of Veteran Affairs has made an important commitment to ensure that efforts are made to reach out to these former soldiers at a critical point in their life where care, compassion and treatment is most needed.

For more information on the VJO program, contact Lori DeYoung, LCSW, Ph.D., at 217-554-5134 or lori.deyoung@va.gov. Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System staff members will contribute monthly columns on the type of services and new initiatives available for veterans in East Central Illinois.

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