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The Last Battle: Private foundation raising $100 million for mental health clinics at Fort Bragg

A private foundation is raising $100 million to build clinics at Fort Bragg and other installations to help the military treat and research the psychological wounds of war.

The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund's planned clinic would be the latest in a flurry of local projects that leaders in the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs hope will make it easier to meet the growing demand for mental health care.

New buildings have been rising across the region to better serve an increasing number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who return with physical and mental wounds. The Army has committed more than $116 million at Fort Bragg since 2009 to build or remodel facilities to treat wounded and mentally injured soldiers.

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Womack Army Medical Center opened the Army's first clinic to treat mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries in 2007.

Its $88 million Warrior in Transition Complex, which opened this year on Fort Bragg, includes barracks and mental health facilities for wounded soldiers. Off post, Womack has opened clinics in Fayetteville and Hope Mills that enable a psychologist to work alongside primary-care doctors.

The VA is expanding, too. A $120 million outpatient center is scheduled to open on Raeford Road near the Hoke County line in 2014.

A $2.5 million overhaul of the Ramsey Street campus will create space for the VA to hire 23 new mental health specialists. Other VA renovations -- part of an $11.6 million project -- include a new mental health unit on its fifth floor.

Other new VA health facilities, which will include mental health services, are planned or under construction in Wilmington, Goldsboro, Jacksonville and Brunswick and Lee counties. The Fayetteville VA serves more than 150,000 veterans in 21 North Carolina and South Carolina counties. It has 6,038 veterans on its rolls who have been diagnosed with PTSD.

The community clinics all include mental health specialists, making it easier for people in rural areas far from the main Fayetteville VA hospital to get help. Counseling by telephone and online video technology is also available.

The VA has increased its national mental health budget from about $3 billion in 2003 to more than $6 billion next year, with the money going to hire more mental health providers and building more treatment facilities.

Dr. Anna Teague, chief of staff at the Fayetteville VA, said those mental health specialists are being trained in therapy that has been proven effective for PTSD. Teague said the new VA clinics ought to meet demand for several years.

But the biggest challenge, Teague said, is getting veterans to start receiving treatment. Young war veterans often don't want to admit something is wrong. The VA has three new liaisons that work at Womack Army Medical Center to identify soldiers with mental health problems who may soon leave the Army. The liaisons help those soldiers schedule an appointment at the VA.

Teague said placing mental health workers near primary care doctors accomplishes two things: Soldiers don't have to go far to get treatment for mental health problems, and it makes doctors more likely to ask questions about emotional problems that can make physical pain worse.

"My concept is treat the veteran as a whole," Teague said. "We build a clinic thinking mental health is going to be a part of it."

The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund has already built a Center for Excellence in Bethesda, Md., and construction has started at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Camp Lejeune.

The clinics will treat soldiers and send data to a research hub to allow for studies of what treatments work best.

The group has raised $26 million. The timing of the next set of clinics depends on the pace of the fundraising, said David Winters, president of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. Winters said the organization can raise money and build faster than the government could. The clinics, once built, will be handed over to the military to operate.

Winters said he doesn't want to imply that the government isn't doing enough.

Instances of PTSD and TBI became the signature wounds of this generation of war veterans as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan turned to the homemade bomb as their weapon of choice.

"They can injure soldiers in ways that a bullet or shrapnel do not," Winters said. "These injuries are hard to see, they're hard to diagnose and they're hard to treat."

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