Mideast edition, Saturday, July 7, 2007

WASHINGTON — Illinois officials will mandate brain injury screening and post-traumatic stress disorder tests for all state National Guardsmen returning from overseas tours.

The state, the first to require such a checkup, also will offer free screening for mental health issues to any state servicemember or veteran, including those from past U.S. conflicts like the Vietnam War.

“I don’t think many returning troops know enough about brain injuries and PTSD, so we need to get that message out to them,” said Tammy Duckworth, director of the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs. “At the same time, we’re getting anecdotal evidence of older veterans who also need our help.”

Duckworth and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced the program on Tuesday, and hope to have the services and screening procedures in place by the end of August.

Defense officials estimate that one in 10 troops in the combat zone will face some type of brain injury.

Researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have said that 60 percent of combat patients treated there since 2003 have faced mild or severe brain trauma. Long-term effects can range from headaches and forgetfulness to more serious problems like seizures.

Currently about 1,100 Illinois guardsmen are deployed in overseas combat or support missions.

Duckworth, an Illinois guardsman who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, said the state’s new brain injury screening will be included in their post-deployment schedule, with a thorough review by physicians and psychiatrists within two months of their return home.

The state also will set up a hot line, staffed 24 hours a day, for any servicemember or veteran with questions or concerns about mental health problems.

“That’s important, because we don’t have many large military bases in Illinois,” Duckworth said. “Instead of having a veteran have to drive 100 or 200 miles to get information, they can just make a phone call.

“If a spouse says, ‘You’ve been acting odd, you’ve been more irritable than usual,’ it’s just a phone call to get some help.”

Those with potentially serious problems will be directed to nearby facilities or specialists for additional help. State officials have pledged to work on making sure patients are receiving federal veterans’ health benefits or help fund the treatments through state monies.

The initiative is expected to cost about $10.5 million a year.

Duckworth said the screening campaign is one of several recent moves by the state veterans department — in addition to low-cost home loans for veterans and tax credits for companies that employ guardsmen — designed to make sure military personnel are taking advantage of federal benefit programs.

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