University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) clinicians have designed a new program to help returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mild traumatic brain injury.
The program uses a holistic approach and includes four main components: evidence-based treatment for psychological health, healing arts, wellness, and community engagement. Called Operation Mend, it is designed to heal the hidden, yet lingering, wounds of war.
The expanded offerings are part of a new national network called Warrior Care Network, which is funded in part by Wounded Warrior Project.
Among the hidden wounds of war are PTSD and traumatic brain injury. PTSD can develop in people who have seen or lived through a shocking or dangerous event, causing them to feel stressed or frightened long after the event itself.
Traumatic brain injury can be caused by an object striking the head, a shock wave from the blast of an explosive device or an object piercing the skull and entering the brain tissue.
“The percentage of those returning home from post-9/11 conflicts with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress is staggering,” said retired Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, an executive advisor to the Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine at UCLA.
“The addition of this program to the Operation Mend portfolio makes UCLA the civilian leader in providing needed care to post-9/11 veterans. If every institution were doing the same, we could satisfy the unmet needs of veterans and their families for this critical care.”
“Our goal is to help our wounded veterans regain a sense of normalcy in their lives,” said Dr. Jo Sornborger, director of psychological health programs for Operation Mend.
“A major component is to include family members so they can learn how to understand their loved ones’ challenges. We also believe that it is important to help the veterans learn how to access and engage with their community resources. This foundation of family and community support is essential to building a healthy environment that will help the veteran succeed.”
Prior to enrolling in Operation Mend, potential participants spend two to five days at UCLA consulting with specialists from various disciplines to ensure that the program will address their needs.
Once the program begins, the veteran and family spend three weeks at UCLA receiving cognitive training for challenges related to symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury.
The patient also undergoes one-on-one cognitive processing therapy sessions for post-traumatic stress that address war-related psychological trauma and symptoms related to challenges with memory and concentration.
In addition, the patient and family take wellness programs including psychotherapy in which people interact with horses, qi gong (an ancient Chinese practice focused on breathing and movement), acupuncture, acupressure, and meditation. They also participate in healing arts therapy, life tools sessions, social activities, and more.
After three weeks, the patients and family members return home and continue their care by phone and over the internet for three more weeks.
All care, travel, and accommodations are arranged for and provided at no cost to the patients and family members.
Four patients and their families participated in a test of the new program in January and had overwhelmingly positive reactions. The program will welcome its next group of six to 10 patients and family members in May.
“Through highly personalized care focused on the needs of each individual veteran, the Operation Mend expansion will advance the care of wounded veterans and, in doing so, potentially create new standards for the treatment of brain injuries,” said Dr. Thomas Strouse.
The expansion of Operation Mend’s services is part of a first-of-its-kind initiative called Warrior Care Network that connects wounded veterans and their families with world-class, individualized mental health care.
The Warrior Care Network includes three other programs based at academic medical centers — the Veterans Program at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program in Boston, and the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Treating and serving our wounded veterans today requires a team effort,” said John Roberts, warrior relations executive vice president of Wounded Warrior Project (WWP).
“WWP is proud to partner with UCLA and other leading medical centers to help ensure no veteran or family member is turned away from care and support.”
Wounded Warrior Project and Warrior Care Network partners are committing a total of $100 million over three years to fund the initiative, including $7.5 million each that the medical centers will contribute through their own fundraising efforts.
“As a veteran who served in Afghanistan, I have seen firsthand many of my military buddies and their families who are suffering as a result of these invisible wounds,” said retired Army Spc. Joey Paulk, an Operation Mend patient who underwent reconstructive surgeries for his physical injuries after surviving a blast from an improvised explosive device in 2007.
“Operation Mend has been there for me and my family in so many ways over the years. I’m hopeful that this expansion of the program with Warrior Care Network will bring that same hope to my brothers and sisters still trying to heal from the wounds on the inside that you cannot see.”