Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Open forum: A silent killer of America’s veterans

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by John P. Brown III

We have heard an outcry in recent years for better health care for recently returned veterans of the global war on terror. Numerous reports cite high rates of suicide among our young vets and nearly 30 percent suffer from some kind of mental health problem once returning from combat.

AMVETS, one of the nation’s leading veteran service organizations with members in all 50 states from all eras of military service, believes that these issues must be dealt with in a swift and decisive manner to ensure the best possible care for all of our fighting men and women. However, while we seek ways to fight the demons of the current conflict, let us not forget about a lurking killer that affects every generation of American veterans: Heart disease.

One of the principal causes of heart disease is the slow build-up of plaque within the arteries known as atherosclerosis. It often shows no symptoms until arteries are blocked, leading to devastating results. Consider this: Coronary heart disease and stroke were responsible for an estimated 602,000 deaths in the United States in 2004. To put that in perspective, 653,708 U.S. service members were killed in combat in all American wars from the Revolution through the first Persian Gulf War.

Today, more than 1,330,000 veterans live in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the cost of providing medical care for these veterans in 2007 at more than $1.37 billion. Early detection and treatment of heart disease could provide significant savings of increasingly scarce VA resources, not just in the D.C. metro area but nationwide.

Many veterans in the region are older or suffer from disabilities related to their military service, which makes them more vulnerable to heart disease. Plus, the nature of military life is conducive to high stress and high blood pressure, both underlying indicators of atherosclerosis. Fortunately, proper diet and smoking secession can lead to improved heart health for veterans limited in their physical activity by disability. VA also offers drug therapy to help balance levels of good and bad cholesterol.

Even though veterans largely have access to proper treatment from VA, many fail to follow through on their prescribed therapy, suggesting the need for better awareness and education. VA offers a number of programs to help veterans and their families better understand the risks and treatments for heart disease, and private ventures such as the Larry King Cardiac Foundation and the ‘‘Us Against Athero” campaign offer hands-on education on the dangers of heart disease and atherosclerosis.

To AMVETS and veterans’ groups across the country, coronary disease is of the utmost importance. Entirely too many of our nation’s defenders have fallen victim to this silent killer and it is our responsibility to educate D.C. area veterans. We owe a debt to the brave men and women who served this nation, and it begins by ensuring they receive the best information and treatment available for proper heart health.

John P. Brown III is the national commander of AMVETS, based in Lanham.