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VA Transition Advocates Ready to Help Wounded Warriors Get Care, Benefits

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2007 – Chief Petty Officer Richard “Buzz” Bryan isn’t afraid of a fight. A Navy corpsman, he served in two deployments to Iraq with the Marines, including one during the Battle of Fallujah.

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New Department of Veterans Affairs Transition Patient Advocates who will help newly wounded warriors transition from the Defense Department to VA care systems are, from left, Bill Smathers, who will serve in Pittsburgh; Reginald Harrison, in Las Vegas, Nev.; and Tracey-Lee Baker, in Orlando, Fla. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

As he prepares to retire next month with 21 years of service under his belt, Bryan is taking up another fight. He’s among 100 new transition patient advocates, or TAPs, hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help severely wounded troops and their families work their way throughout the transition process.

“I want these kids to know that somebody is here to help them out and help them navigate the system,” he told American Forces Press Service today as he and the other TAPs completed a five-day orientation conference here. “I want to be able to go to a mom and dad and say, ‘It’s OK. Let me fight your battles for you.’”

The VA has long had patient advocates on staff. But VA Secretary Jim Nicholson came up with the concept of TAPs to focus specifically on the needs of severely wounded veterans from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained Kristin Day, the VA’s acting national social work director.

The TAPs – about 80 percent of them veterans, and about a quarter of them veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan – will fan out around the country to serve new combat veterans in their areas. They’ll team up with VA clinicians, case managers and Veterans Benefits Administration representatives to ensure troops transitioning from the military to the VA system get the care and benefits they need and deserve, Day explained.

Until now, that’s a job that’s been left largely to wounded troops or their families, she acknowledged. “We want to shoulder that responsibility for them so they can focus on getting well.”

“Why a special program? It’s because these are special people,” said Bill Smathers, a new TAP headed to Pittsburgh.

“Whenever they go, from Landstuhl (Regional Medical Center in Germany) to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center in Washington) to maybe a (VA) polytrauma center, they are handed off and have different people and agencies to deal with,” Smathers said. “But hopefully, we can assert ourselves into the process that there will always be one constant, and that’s us.”

“We fill the gaps,” said Reginald Harrison, an Army veteran who spent 12 years as a VA patient advocate before signing on for the TAP program. “The VA doesn’t want anything falling through the cracks, so we navigate (wounded warriors) through the VA system to make sure there are no problems.”

As the first person selected to the TAP program, Harrison said he feels a special commitment to seeing it succeed. He recalled Nicholson sharing his expectations personally. “He looked at me and told me, ‘You do whatever it takes to help these veterans and their families,’” Harrison said. “So I asked him, ‘Can I use your name?’ and he said, ‘You do whatever it takes.’

“That puts mustard on the bread for me,” Harrison said. “So I don’t feel afraid to go out there and do whatever it takes to help these veterans. … The VA, at the end of the day, is going to be there for families, for the returning veterans, our heroes. We have a process now that will not fail our veterans and their families.”

Tracey-Lee Baker, a new TAP who will work in Orlando, Fla., knows firsthand the challenges severely wounded troops face. Before retiring from the Army last fall, Baker spent five years as an intensive care unit nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and a year deployed to the 48th Combat Support Hospital in Afghanistan.

“I’ve worked with these veterans since the war started. I’ve received them, I have taken care of them, and I have helped get them better,” she said. “This is the next step, a way for me to get back in touch with these veterans to help them transition to a normal life, or as normal a life as we can get them.”

The TAPs share a deep belief in the program. “This isn’t just a program, it’s a priority,” he said. “It’s been made very clear to me during my short time here at the VA that the leadership is sincere about changing the way they do business.”

Since retiring last year after 24 years in the Army, Smathers said he jumped at the chance to do a job as personally gratifying as looking out for the interests of wounded warriors.

“These are American heroes, and I don’t think that can be said enough,” he said. “For me to be able to try to help them live a life of normalcy, what could be more rewarding than that?”

“I appreciate the fact that people are out there dying for the freedoms that we have, for the lives that we have in this country,” agreed Harrison. “And what better way to give back than to do what we do: provide them with the care and treatment they deserve and making sure nothing falls through the cracks?

“I do this job because I love and appreciate them,” he said. “After all, I’m a soldier, too.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageChief Petty Officer Richard “Buzz” Bryan said he looks forward to his post-retirement job helping wounded warriors and their families get the health care and benefits they deserve. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles  
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