Wounded Veterans Find Comfort, Hope in Cooking Class

By Mina Kim

Chef Lars Kronmark teaches veterans how to remove the skin of a fish; part of a four-day "boot camp" at Napa's Culinary Institute of America where injured veterans and their spouses learn healthy cooking tips. (Mina Kim/KQED)

Chef Lars Kronmark teaches veterans how to remove the skin of a fish; part of a four-day “boot camp” at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America where injured veterans and their spouses learn healthy cooking tips. (Mina Kim/KQED)

In a stainless-steel teaching kitchen deep within the old stone walls of the elite Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, acclaimed chef Lars Kronmark pulls a piece of fat from the cavity of a raw, whole chicken.

“A big chunk of fat like that, it doesn’t really hurt to leave it in there,” Kronmark said. “But in the end of the day, that’s still going to be too much fat.”

It looks like a standard cooking class. But this is an unusual class for an unusual group of students. It’s a healthy cooking “boot camp” designed for wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a goal of helping veterans connect with each other and learn to eat healthier.

Six military veterans and their spouses dressed in white chef’s coats and hats watch Kronmark closely. His healthy cooking techniques are welcome tips to the group of 12, including veteran James McQuoid, who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m of the larger variety,” McQuoid said. “A couple years ago, I didn’t care about my health. I was very reclusive and what not, but through therapy and stuff I’ve come to realize — I’ve got a younger child — I want to be around a bit longer, and I’m really not helping myself at all.”

A healthy dinner is served at Napa's Culinary Institute of America healthy-cooking boot camp for injured veterans. (Mina Kim/KQED)

A healthy dinner is served at Napa’s Culinary Institute of America healthy-cooking boot camp for injured veterans. (Mina Kim/KQED)

Federal officials estimate more than 70 percent of the veterans receiving care in the VA are overweight or obese. McQuoid’s doctor recommended he get more omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish instead of fatty meats.

“But I didn’t know how to cook fish,” McQuoid said. “After being here though, I can cook fish!”

The four-day boot camp is a program of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that serves injured veterans transitioning to civilian life. The camp’s days begin with lectures on subjects like the physiology of taste and end with vets and their partners preparing dishes for dinner. Today’s menu includes roast chicken with lemon and rosemary, Baja fish tacos, and pork loin cooked in a pomegranate glaze. Continue reading

One in Ten California Veterans are Uninsured

One in ten California veterans lack health insurance. (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

Ten percent of California veterans don’t have health insurance or don’t use Veterans Affairs (V.A.) care. That’s just slightly below the 10.3 percent rate among veterans around the country.

That’s according to a report by the Urban Institute. Co-author Jennifer Haley says there are 108,000 uninsured vets in the state, second only to the number in Texas.

“In our study someone is uninsured if they don’t have any of the types of insurance coverage you’d think of for general population and they also don’t report using V.A. care,” says Haley.

Haley used data from the 2010 American Community Survey to look at the rates among non-elderly vets, ages 19-64. She says disproportionate numbers of the uninsured were also unemployed and unmarried. Continue reading

Federal Court Dismisses Veterans’ Suit over Mental Health Care

Soldiers on patrol in Iraq. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Soldiers on patrol in Iraq. (Photo: U.S. Army)

In a final decision five years in the making, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Monday that the courts lack jurisdiction to order changes in the way the Veterans Administration handles mental health claims.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Two veterans groups said in a 2007 lawsuit that the VA had made mental health care virtually unavailable to thousands of discharged soldiers through perfunctory exams, long waits for referrals and treatment, and a prolonged medical benefits process in which vets can’t hire lawyers.

At a trial in 2008, Department of Veterans Affairs documents showed that the system took an average of 4.4 years to review veterans’ health care claims, that more than 1,400 veterans who had been denied coverage died in one six-month period while their appeals were pending, and that 18 veterans per day were committing suicide, much higher than the rate among the general population. Continue reading

VA Adds Mental Health Clinicians

The need for mental health services among veterans has increased 35% since 2007. (Getty Images)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced that it will add 1,600 mental health clinicians and 300 support staff to veterans hospitals across the country to help contend with the rising demand for mental health care among returning veterans. That’s an almost 10% increase in mental health staff and is sorely needed at hospitals that can’t keep up with the requests for appointments. In some places, wait time for care is much longer than the VA’s 14 day policy, the subject of a report by the department’s inspector general to be released next week.

Northern California may be faring slightly better than the rest of the country on mental health issues. “In Northern California we have many veterans coming back. We also have a lot of staff,” said Robin Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System. “We’ve tripled our mental health staff in the last 4 years. So we many be ahead of the curve,” she added. Jackson said that staff in Northern California realized that traumatic brain injury and other mental trauma would be the most common illnesses in returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, so they ramped up their staffing to meet the need. Continue reading

Veterans with PTSD at Risk of Prescription Opioid Abuse

Veterans with PTSD are more likely than other vets to be prescribed opioid drugs for pain relief. (Photo: Jupiter Images)

Across the country, there’s been a greater understanding of treating pain. The prescription of opioid pain relievers–drugs like codeine, vicodin or morphine–has nearly doubled since 1994. But at the same time, prescription opioid abuse, overdose and death has also increased dramatically. The same trends are true for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Today, due to medical advances and improvements in combat protective gear, higher numbers of veterans of these wars are surviving injuries. But once home, they continue to suffer both pain and mental health problems. They are often prescribed opioid pain relievers.

But little has been known about mental health disorders and the prescribing of opioids to veterans. Researchers at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and UCSF set out to address this question and found that veterans with mental health problems were more likely to be prescribed opioid drugs than veterans without mental health issues. Continue reading

Women Veterans Suffer from PTSD at Same Rate as Men

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a major issues for female soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros: Getty Images)

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a major issue for female soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Chris Hondros: Getty Images)

The number of women in the military has doubled in the past decade. According to the Pentagon, about 10 percent of the 2.2 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been women.

These women are more likely to be in the line of fire than those serving in previous wars — and that means they’re also at a higher risk of having depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) wanted to see if gender played a role in mental health outcomes after soldiers were exposed to combat-related trauma. In a recent study, researchers looked at 7,251 veteran responses to different kinds of combat exposure: witnessing killing, sexual trauma, killing in war, and injury. They found that PTSD rates are the same among male and female vets of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, with about 18 percent of both groups screening positive for the disorder.

While both male and female vets had equal chances of having PTSD after exposure to killing, sexual trauma, or witnessing killing, women vets who were injured were more likely to have PTSD than men.

The study also found that while female veterans were more likely to suffer from depression, their male counterparts were more likely to abuse alcohol.

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