Veterans Can Now Track Delivery of Prescriptions

Woman checking a mailbox

She knew her VA prescriptions would arrive today.

Call it innovative thinking, ingenuity, or just a plain great idea to better serve Veterans! VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald recently reminded VA employees that the mission is clear — to serve Veterans. Putting Veterans at the center of VA is first and foremost.

For VA employee Kenneth Siehr, National Director, VA Consolidated Mail Out Pharmacy Program (CMOP), his great idea not only foreshadowed the sentiments expressed by Secretary McDonald months later, but brought national recognition to VA and My HealtheVet.

Joining four other federal finalists, Siehr’s innovative idea for the President’s 2013 Securing America’s Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Award focused on the use of technology to save money and improve the services VA provides to Veteran patients.

This innovative idea — now a reality — won the Presidential SAVE Award in December 2013. In February 2014, Siehr met with President Obama to discuss his winning proposal. Following that meeting, work to implement his funded idea began.

Siehr’s idea allows Veteran patients to track the delivery of their VA prescriptions online through My HealtheVet at He believed that taking the idea of a self-service delivery tracking tool would improve customer service to Veterans by giving them the ability to track their VA refill medications online, 24/7. This online option is designed to be both efficient and customer-focused. It may eliminate a portion of the estimated 1.8 million telephone calls to VA health care facilities generated from Veterans seeking to track their medication delivery each year.

“Our nation’s Veterans deserve a first-class pharmacy and customer service as a part of the exceptional health care available from VA,” said Siehr. “It is an honor to be part of serving Veterans and to have been recognized for an idea that enhances service to those Veterans. They deserve nothing less, and online prescription tracking on My HealtheVet delivers on that commitment.”

“Siehr looked at the process of VA prescription tracking through the eyes of Veteran patients and came up with an idea,” said Theresa Hancock, Director, My HealtheVet. “This idea was both innovative and transformative. We are pleased to be part of moving this idea into action to improve service to America’s Veterans.”

More than 4,000 Veterans are already using VA’s Prescription Tracker available on My HealtheVet every day. Postcards are being sent to enrolled Veteran patients so that they may learn more about the new Prescription Tracking feature.

This is one of many features available for Veterans on My HealtheVet. If you are a Veteran enrolled in VA and are not currently registered on My HealtheVet visit today! For questions, please contact the My HealtheVet Coordinator at your VA medical center.

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Veteran Survived the Battle of the Bulge

Old photo of a man in uniform next to the same man, now elderly

WW II Veteran Arthur Berkowitz in 1944 and today

Sherry Berkowitz has the utmost admiration for Arthur Berkowitz, her dad, who celebrated his 91st birthday last week. She is his daily caregiver, advocate, and morale booster and takes every occasion to let others know, “He is a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge and was badly injured in the weeks that followed.”

The Battle of the Bulge was a major German offensive fought in the late winter of 1944, through the densely forested Western Front of Europe. The surprise attack toward the end of World War II took many Allied casualties, particularly among U.S. troops.

The historic Battle of the Bulge happened 70 years ago and helped turn the tide of war in the European Theater by weakening German military resources. But the Battle of the Bulge remains very much present in the minds of World War ll Veterans like Berkowitz who, time after time, relives his combat experience and the moment he was permanently disabled.

Drafted as an Army infantryman, Berkowitz describes the daily life he and others endured during the winter of 1944-45. “It was very, very cold. I slept on ice in a fox hole, wrapped in a coat I took off a dead German,” he said. “Yes, I have PTSD.”

“I wasn’t assigned to tanks, but I knew how to reload the gun. I asked another soldier to move over so I could reload, and he and the two other soldiers with me were killed by a mortar shell explosion,” said Berkowitz, recalling one traumatic incident among many. “That’s what you call luck,” he says.

Weeks later, Berkowitz’s knee was shattered by a sniper’s bullet. Treated on the field and airlifted to England, Berkowitz was then transported by ship to the United States. He sustained 14 operations on his knee and spent over two years in hospitals, basically battling infection.

Finally, he volunteered to try streptomycin. Now a familiar antibiotic, the drug was then in its experimental stages. He was told it might cause loss of hearing and sterility, but, happily for Berkowitz, the drug stopped the infection and had no negative side effects.

His combat injury, however, was treated by fusing the bones of his knee and Berkowitz knew then he would proceed through life with chronic pain and a knee that would not bend.

Veteran Marries Veteran

After recovery, Berkowitz met Navy Veteran Tabby Berkowitz on a blind date. Within a month’s time, he asked her to be his wife, and the couple married two months later. They lived in an apartment and then moved to a home they purchased for $16,000 in Fresh Meadows, Queens where they raised two daughters. After Berkowitz’s wife died, he continued to live in the same home with his daughter Sherry.

Berkowitz and his daughter are frequent visitors to VA’s Manhattan campus, where he receives care in cardiology, PTSD, physical medicine and rehab. Berkowitz cannot give enough praise for his daughter’s devoted care. “She gets up very early every day and drives me here, three, four times a week for all my appointments. I couldn’t do this without her.”

For her part, Sherry, a trained speech therapist, takes the full-time job as caregiver in stride. “I began being a caregiver when my mother was ill. Now, I take care of my father,” she said.

Sherry said she was very grateful to have access to VA’s toll-free Caregiver Support line, 855-260-3274. “It’s wonderful,” she said. Sherry just completed a six-week Building Better Caregivers training program, offered through VA’s national Caregiver Support Program.

For more about services VA provides caregivers of Veterans, visit VA’s Caregiver Support page.

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Objective: Help improve health care for Veterans

A nurse prepares to draw blood from a female Veteran

Participation does not affect Veterans’ access to health care or benefits.

VA’s Million Veteran Program (MVP) aims to be one of the largest databases of its kind in the United States to help us learn how genes affect health in order to improve health care for Veterans.

To date, nearly 330,000 Veterans have joined the program. We need your help. Participation is entirely voluntary and will not in any way affect Veterans’ access to health care or benefits.

The Million Veteran Program is an important partnership between VA and Veterans to establish a database of genetic, military exposure, lifestyle, and health information. What we learn from the research may lead to new ways of preventing and treating illnesses in Veterans.

What does participation involve?

The goal of the Million Veteran Program is to partner with Veterans receiving services in the VA health care system who volunteer to share their health information, as well as genetic material.

Active involvement in this program includes:

  • Filling out surveys through the mail
  • Completing a one-time study visit to provide a blood sample for genetic analyses at a participating VA Medical Center
  • Permitting authorized MVP staff to securely access VA and VA-linked medical and health information, including past and future health records
  • Agreeing to future contact

What are genes and how do they affect health?

  • Through interactions with our environment and various lifestyle factors, genes may contribute to our risk for disease, including common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • In fact, genes may be a critical part of why some people get diseases and others do not. Genes may also affect how we respond to certain medications. Because of their genetic make-up, some people may respond better than others to a particular treatment, or experience different side effects.

How does this important research help Veterans?

  • Veterans — and in fact all Americans — stand to benefit greatly as researchers learn more about the effects of genes on health.
  • Screening, diagnosis, and treatment for some illnesses — such as some forms of cancer — have already been improved through knowledge about the effects of certain genes.
  • The Million Veteran Program will lead to new knowledge about which genes put people at risk for certain diseases, and which ones affect how people respond to treatment. This knowledge may eventually lead to better treatments and preventive measures for many diseases, including common illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

I Have Some Questions

Understandably, you should have questions about participating in any study. We have provided answers to these and many other questions on our MVP website:

Contact Information

For more information about participating in the Million Veteran Program, visit Or call, toll-free, (866) 441-6075.

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Seven Ways to Manage Stress during the Holidays

Cartoon of people stressed out, with another group at a stress management workshop

VA offers many tools for handling stress

Family, friends, fun, and food: holidays can be the best of times.

But they’re also stressful times, full of demands and deadlines.

“Stress during any time of year can become a problem and affect your health when it goes on for too long or feels overwhelming,” says Dr. Peg Dundon. Dundon is the National Program Manager for Health Behavior at VA’s National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (NCP).

Use these seven tips to de-stress during the holidays and year-round:

  1. Get physical—Take a brisk walk or be physically active in another way. Regular activity is best. Even a 10-minute chunk of active time can help!
  2. Be part of the solution—Learn problem-solving skills. They can improve your ability to cope. Your VA medical center may offer a class or information session. A web-based problem-solving program called “Moving Forward” is also available at
  3. Learn to relax—Discover relaxation and mindfulness skills. They can help you manage stress and even protect you from it.
  4. Express yourself—Keeping your thoughts bottled up can increase stress. So speak up in respectful ways. Sharing thoughts and feelings in a polite yet firm manner can help reduce stress.
  5. Manage Your Time—List what needs to get done, make plans for addressing issues, and stick to the plan as best you can.
  6. Use positive power—Stress often is associated with negative, self-critical thinking. Focus your attention on positive thoughts about yourself and others.
  7. Enjoy Yourself—Despite extra pressures from busy schedules, it’s important to take time for yourself. Plan something you enjoy. For suggestions, see VA’s Pleasant Activities Tip Sheet.

Cartoon of people enjoying activities

Take time for yourself and plan something you enjoy

VA offers many tools for handling stress, including the Manage Stress website. The site offers links to the Manage Stress Workbook and relaxation recordings. Plus, you’ll find links to many helpful websites and mobile apps that teach strong stress-management skills. You can also go to the Veterans Health Library at for more information on managing stress.

If you sense that stress is hurting your health or causing physical symptoms, talk with your health care provider. VA primary care teams have staff members who are experts in stress management.

If you feel overwhelming stress, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press option 1. You may also reach confidential help by sending a text to 838255 or through online chat at

Stress is part of all of our lives to varying degrees. The key is learning and practicing ways to manage stress that work for you, so stress doesn’t manage your health and well-being.

For more information on how to manage stress, visit the Manage Stress Web Site at

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USS Arizona Survivor Recalls Pearl Harbor Attack

Smoldering navy ship, USS Arizona

At approximately 8:10 a.m., a bomb struck the USS Arizona

Shortly before 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Lonnie Cook had just taken a shower and had plans to spend a day of “liberty” in Honolulu. Standing in front of his locker in Turret 3 aboard the battleship USS Arizona, he heard a rumbling in the distance.

“We didn’t think much about it,” said Cook, who is 94 years old and one of only nine USS Arizona survivors still living.

“The chief turret captain came all the way from Chief quarters and tumbled into the bottom of the turret and said the Japanese are bombing us.”

Cook and the 17 Sailors in Turret 3 fired on the Japanese planes overhead with their 14 inch guns. But at approximately 8:10 a.m., a bomb struck the Arizona which was anchored at Pearl Harbor Naval Base.

“I was on the shell deck where they store the projectiles,” said Cook. “I was on the ladder going up when it blew up. It knocked all the lights out and it knocked a lot of things loose, projectiles loose.” The ship erupted into flames and smoke came pouring into Cook’s turret.

“I went on up in the gun mount and it was smoky and the people in charge thought they were gassing us,” said Cook. “They gave the order to go out on deck and most of the machine gunning had slowed down by then.”

As the Arizona sank, Cook helped rescue as many Sailors as he could. “We took all the people we could out of the compartments,” he said. “People came out of there with so many burns, if they called me by name, I couldn’t even tell who they were.”

With the deck of the ship almost at sea level, the order was given to abandon ship.

Portrait of an elderly man

Navy Veteran Lonnie Cook, 94

Volunteered to go back the next day

“We went out on deck and took life rafts down off the side of the turret and put them in the water,” said Cook. “It had sunk down about 15 or 18 feet. We had been busy and didn’t notice it.” Cook, one of the lucky survivors, spent the night in a bomb shelter on nearby Ford Island. The next day, he volunteered to immediately go back to sea.

“Nobody seemed to be telling us what to do and there were eight or 10 of us out of the Arizona gun crew that heard they wanted people to volunteer to go on destroyers,” said Cook. “We told them that if they would put two or three of us together on a destroyer, we’d volunteer. So they agreed and I went on the USS Patterson.”

During the remainder of the war, Cook also served aboard the USS Alywin, USS Pringle and USS Hall. He also took part in the Battle of Coral Sea, Battle of Midway and invasions of the Marshall Islands, Philippines, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

“All we had to worry about was submarines, mines, and suicide planes,” said Cook about life at sea in the Pacific.

Today, Cook lives in the same town where he grew up, Morris, Okla., with his wife Marietta. He has received his health care at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, Okla. since 1994.

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At Wyoming VA, No Veteran Dies Alone

Elderly woman in a wheelchair hugs a young woman

Mary, a resident at the Cheyenne VA community living center, clearly enjoys the company of Brittny Leaman, an energetic young VA nursing assistant.

Photo by Patricia Hill, Cheyenne VA

“The thing I’m most worried about,” actress Anne Hathaway once said, “is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.”

Well, Anne, the nice folks at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center in Wyoming sort of feel the same way you do which is why they launched a program called ‘No Veteran Dies Alone,’ where volunteers from the VA — as well as the local community — spend time with Veterans who are in their final days or hours.

Chief Chaplain Carol Carr, who started the program at the Cheyenne VA in 2012, said she and her team now train about 20 to 25 volunteers each year.

“Fortunately, we never have too many Veterans in hospice at any one time,” she explained, “so most of our work is done at our Old Glory Community Living Center. Our volunteers also visit patients in the Intensive Care Unit, or wherever else they’re needed.”

It’s not always easy work.

Thanks, But No Thanks

“The one Veteran I think about the most is someone who didn’t even want my help,” said Mary Jo Alley, a volunteer who works for Disabled American Veterans. “He and his wife were very private people, and mainly wanted to be left alone. They really didn’t want us to be around. She wanted to be the one taking care of him and he didn’t want anyone taking care of him but her. So we just backed off, but we let them know we’d be there for them if they needed us.”

Eventually, the couple accepted the offer.

“Taking care of a dying spouse can be exhausting,” Alley observed. “Sometimes you need a break; you need someone to fill in for you so you can rest. I think the wife finally got to that point. I remember I went into their room one day; I told her I could sit with her husband while she went and got something to eat. She actually took me up on my offer.

“So she left. And that’s when the husband got really upset. He got angry and told me to leave him alone. So I did. I got up and left. But as I was walking out the door he called me back and he actually apologized for being so cantankerous. I think he finally realized that I was there for him, as well as for his wife. So I sat with him for a while. I didn’t want him to be alone.”

 Sometimes, toward the end, they’re not alert anymore. So you just sit with them and hold their hand and hope they are somehow aware that someone is with them. 
— Mary Jo Alley, volunteer

Cribbage, Anyone?

Mary Homiak, a program support specialist at the Cheyenne VA, said her heart was touched by one Veteran who never had any visitors.

“He was very lonely,” she said. “He had no family here. I remember playing cribbage with him. He loved to play cribbage. It’s a card game. The first time we played cribbage, he didn’t like the way I was counting my cards. So we played his way. And that made him happy.”

And then there’s Mary.

“I kind of adopted this one lady, Mary, who’s in her 90s,” Homiak explained. “Or maybe she’s adopted me. Every Wednesday I visit her at the community living center and we usually go shopping. Mary’s a shopper. I’ll take her out to the mall. She loves to look at jewelry and she likes to wear jewelry. We also take her to the beauty salon because her appearance is very important to her.”

“Mary likes to have a beer too. When we go out to dinner after a day of shopping, she has to have her beer. So we sit there and have a beer together. She can’t tell its non-alcoholic. It’s that St. Paulie’s beer.”

Homiak said her desire to help Veterans living out their final days may be rooted in a sad experience involving her dad.

“My father was a World War II Vet,” she said. “At the end of his life he had lung cancer. I lived in a different state back then and couldn’t see him all that often. Mom was there with him at the hospital, but I couldn’t be there as much as I wanted to…

“It broke my heart,” she said.

Appreciation and Respect

Navy Veteran Michael McGhghy recently lost his 83-year-old father, a Marine Corps Veteran, who died peacefully in VA hospice in Cheyenne.

“It was good to have someone there, watching over him,” McGhghy said of the volunteers who visited his dad. “It took a big load off us, because we couldn’t be there all the time.

“Towards the end, they weren’t just there for him; they were there for us as well,” he observed. “They were comforting us. They explained that he wasn’t in pain. Even though he couldn’t speak anymore, they told us he could still hear, that we could still talk to him.”

McGhghy said his father died in the company of his family, as well as VA staff and volunteers who respected him and genuinely cared about him.

“Dad lived at the VA community living center for 10 years before entering hospice, so everybody knew him,” the Navy Veteran explained. “They all thought the world of dad. They liked him. They appreciated him while he was alive and they were there for him when he died.”

elderly female volunteer sitting beside an elderly male patient

Volunteer Anne Picot spends some quality time with her friend Tom, a Navy Veteran who resides at the VA community living center in Cheyenne.

Photo by Patricia Hill, Cheyenne VA

Anger and Fear

Anne Picot, 73, is another volunteer with a special place in her heart for Veterans nearing the end of life. She herself has been confined to a wheelchair for 30 years, having been struck with polio as a very young woman living in her native England.

“I remember this one Veteran,” she said in her soft English accent. “As soon as I saw him, I knew he was very, very sick and didn’t have long to live. But he was also very angry. He was quite suspicious of everything and everyone when he arrived here and he wouldn’t make eye contact. He never had visitors; no one came to see him. He was alone. And he was afraid, because he knew he was dying. He was 59 years old.”

“Loneliness, I think, is the worst thing that can happen to you,” she said.

Despite the lack of conversation and eye contact, Picot would sit quietly with the Veteran for hours at a time. Eventually her comforting presence — along with her endless patience — began to have an effect. The angry, dying Veteran began to loosen up.

“He began to trust me,” she said. “He started making eye contact with me and talking to me. I remember he had these big, brown eyes. He would talk to me about his life, about all kinds of things. Little by little, I watched his anger and his fear leave him.

“One night, after I’d been sitting with him for several hours, I told him it was time for me to go home. Before I could leave he grabbed my hand and told me he loved me very much. I told him I loved him, too and that it was a privilege to be his friend. Then I told him that he and I would one day see each other again.”

After that, the Veteran faded quickly.

“When he was really dying, he couldn’t talk anymore and his eyes were closed all the time,” Picot said. “So all I could do was sit with him and hold his hand.

“Toward the very end, I told him I wished he would wake up so I could see those brown eyes one more time. But of course, he didn’t open his eyes.”

Learn more about VA’s No Veteran Dies Alone program

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Giving Thanks … with Empathy and Hope

Man and woman talking

Patricia (PJ) Johnson and Army Veteran Teddy Rosario

Patricia Johnson is helping to provide a few friends with a Thanksgiving dinner. About 110 of them, actually, all Veterans for whom she says, “We can’t do enough.”

The annual dinner at the NY Harbor Health Care System Mental Health Clinic is scheduled the day before Thanksgiving. As Johnson, known as “PJ” to her many friends, puts it, “We are thankful for the many freedoms these Veterans have given us. When I was in college, I could go dancing but these guys were in foxholes. I am just so thankful I can now do something for them.”

A lot of Veterans who will be at the Thanksgiving dinner are also very thankful for PJ. Here’s why.

When asked what skills are most useful in the Manhattan Psychosocial Clubhouse, Patricia Johnson responds by saying “empathy and hope.”

Johnson, who coordinates the activities for the Clubhouse, is noted for her upbeat, poetic and bohemian artistic spirit. She is proud to have worked at VA for a number of years and is happy to have found her niche in coordinating the activities of the Clubhouse since the beginning of the program in 1993.

A few years ago, Johnson was run over by a car while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. A broken pelvis and other serious injuries required nine months of rehabilitation in a nursing home. The experience strengthened her awareness of the importance of empathy and hope in recovery from physical and emotional trauma.

She welcomes all Veterans into the Clubhouse and is especially sensitive to those who may be struggling to just get through the day. Throughout her recovery, she would receive “visits” in the form of weekly phone calls from Veterans at the Clubhouse, encouraging her to recover and come back quickly.

“I came back with Access-a-Ride and a walker,” she says. Today, thanks to physical therapy and a very positive attitude, PJ literally does a hop, skip and jump to demonstrate her full recovery.

“PJ is definitely the Clubhouse.”

“Knowing someone was depending on me was the big impetus to get well.” She says she never forgets how powerful the message of empathy and hope from others can be when you are not feeling well and barely getting by.

Johnson’s devotion to her work with Veterans and their devotion to her is unmistakable and very moving. “Treat Veterans like you would want your family to be treated and then we can’t go wrong” is how she expresses her core values relating to interactions with Veterans, whether it’s giving Veterans the chance to express themselves by teaching them the art of wood burning, listening to them vent frustrations, or just kidding around and encouraging laughter.

Teddy Rosario, an Army Veteran who has known PJ since 1987 when the Clubhouse opened, says, “PJ is definitely the Clubhouse. Without her, we would have no mother.”

The New York Harbor Manhattan Clubhouse is a mental health recovery oriented space in the Mental Health Outpatient Clinic that invites Veterans to socialize, learn new skills and connect with other Veterans. The Clubhouse provides activities that promote mental health recovery and transition back to the community in an environment that respects the unique richness of the Veterans experiences.

Veterans are offered an opportunity to take part in peer support services, structured activities and a safe place to socialize. The Clubhouse partners with Volunteer Services to provide opportunities for community organizations and services wanting to show their appreciation to our Veterans by hosting music performances, holiday luncheons and many other activities meaningful to our Veterans.

This year, Johnson’s commitment to Veterans and her remarkable devotion to supporting their feelings of wellbeing were formally acknowledged when VA New York Harbor Healthcare System Director Martina Parauda recognized her as a 2014 recipient of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “Hands and Heart Award.”

“You made the change because you were ready.”

The award recognizes a VA employee at each medical facility whose characteristics best exemplify the provision of emotional support, help and guidance to patients during the past year.

Sister James, a Cabrini Sisters nun, agrees with the recognition. “PJ was very welcoming to me and supportive and open to my suggestions. She shows by her own actions how to be supportive. She is very compassionate and always has the time.”

Many Veterans in the New York City area are also very thankful for Sister James. She has volunteered for more than five years assisting in many kinds of demanding activities such as working with VA staff to host holiday meals for dozens of Veterans.

“It has been wonderful working at the Clubhouse. I enjoy working with the Veterans and with the other volunteers. I thought I was helping them, but they’ve given more to me. They are wonderful, humble, loving people. My heart goes out to the men and women Veterans,” says Sister James, who is now recovering from an illness.

Reflecting on the award Johnson says “It’s like the Stanley Cup. I have it for a year and then have to give it back.”

But her greatest moments of satisfaction are ongoing. “Patients tell me the difference I’ve made in their lives. They come back saying, ‘I’m clean ten years because of you,’ or, ‘I got my life together because of you.’ I tell them you made the change because you were ready.”

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Brain Bank to Help in Treatment of PTSD

Close up portrait of Dr. Matthew Friedman

Dr. Matthew Friedman

There are currently more than 50 brain banks in the United States. The focus of these brain tissue repositories is on investigating alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and a variety of neurological disorders. Yet there has never been a PTSD brain bank — until now.

With recently appropriated funding from Congress, the National Center for PTSD is leading a research consortium developing a national PTSD brain bank. This will be the first brain tissue repository dedicated to researching the physical impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue, thereby advancing the scientific knowledge of PTSD, particularly PTSD biomarkers. Dr. Matthew Friedman, Senior Advisor to the Center and its former Executive Director, is directing the consortium. Plans are for the brain bank to become operational by early 2015.

According to Friedman, “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank would be very grateful to accept tissue donations from Veterans who wish to donate their brains for scientific study after they die. We will establish a website where potential donors can make their wishes known. Brain bank staff will contact them and initiate in-depth discussions about donating tissue to the brain bank.”

Friedman expects the website will be launched within a month or two.

Since 2003, leading academic and research institutions have collaborated in an effort, led by Friedman and Dr. Robert Ursano, Chair of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS), to establish a national PTSD brain bank. But various impediments, including lack of reliable funding, held up the project for a decade.

“We have wanted to do this for a long time, but only now have we received the funding we needed,” Friedman explained. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a steadfast supporter of the Center’s mission to improve the lives of Veterans living with PTSD, spearheaded the successful effort to secure Congressional funding for the brain bank last year. Because of the pivotal roles played by Leahy and Friedman, the brain bank’s official name is “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank.”

Sites in Vermont, Boston, Maryland and Connecticut

Like the National Center for PTSD, the brain bank is organized as a consortium with sites across the United States. Friedman directs the initiative from the Center’s Executive Division in White River Junction, Vermont. The primary site for receiving brain tissue is the VA Medical Center in Boston in conjunction with the National Center’s Boston-based Behavioral Science Division. The secondary receiving site is at the VA Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The USUHS in Bethesda, Maryland serves as the primary assessment site while the National Center’s Clinical Neurosciences Division in West Haven, Connecticut is the primary research site.

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank will be a national resource to support VA and other academic researchers. As Friedman and co-author Dr. William W. Harris foretold in “Toward a National PTSD Brain Bank” (Winter 2004 special issue of Psychiatry , edited by Ursano), “It is expected that applicants who wish to utilize tissue housed in the brain bank would submit their proposals for peer review by a scientific committee convened for this purpose. Prioritization of submitted proposals would be conducted along time-tested peer review procedures.”

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank is a major advancement in the fight against PTSD.

“Although we have learned a great deal about abnormalities in brain structure and function from brain imaging research, there is no substitute for looking at the neurons themselves,” said Friedman. “Understanding the cellular and circuit contributions to abnormal brain activity in PTSD is critical in the search for potential biomarkers of susceptibility, illness and treatment response and for developing new treatments targeting the conditions at the cellular level. The National PTSD Brain Bank’s findings should help pave the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of individuals with PTSD.”

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Quit Smoking for Your Health and Breathe Easier

Male Veteran on a beach inhailing the fresh air.

If you smoke, this year breathe easier. Make a plan to quit for your health.

November 20th is the Great American Smokeout. If you smoke, this year breathe easier. Make a plan to quit for your health and to quit for good! The benefits of quitting smoking are immediate and last a lifetime.

Here are some helpful tips and encouragement to help you kick your habit from Dr. Timothy P. Carmody, a clinical psychologist and smoking cessation specialist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and University of California San Francisco. For the past several decades, Carmody has been helping Veterans quit smoking and stay quit.

You Can Do It!

As the old adage goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” For many Veterans, the idea of quitting smoking is overwhelming and mustering up the confidence to quit can be hard. It is often difficult to picture yourself successfully quitting, imagining a life without cigarettes, or dealing with cravings or other effects such as increased appetite and anxiety.

Be confident. You can quit and keep your confidence through every stage of the quit process.

Find Your Motivation and Support

Veterans quit for many different reasons – a spouse or partner, parents, friends or health. Many want to set a good example for children or grandchildren. Find your own motivation for quitting and lean on it through the quit process. Your motivation may also lend you support, such as family who can cheer you on or help lift you up. If you don’t have family or friends who can offer support, lean on your community, learn from former smokers or join a VA support group.

You May Relapse (and That’s OK)!

Throughout your journey to quit smoking, you may experience setbacks. In fact, most Veterans who successfully quit have relapsed at one point or another in the past. Your ultimate success in quitting will be built on the lessons learned from these setbacks. Do not get discouraged or feel like you have failed.

The only failure is to stop trying.

Get Complete Care

Veterans who smoke may also be in treatment for other health conditions such as mental health or substance use disorders. When seeking treatment for other health conditions, consider quitting smoking as part of your overall treatment or recovery.

Make a Quit Plan: VA Can Help!

Call 1-855-QUIT-VET to get started on your quit plan. Combine smoking cessation medication with counseling for the best chance of quitting. Talk with your health care provider about getting a prescription or recommendation for nicotine replacement therapy such as gum, patch, lozenge and other medications. VA offers counseling and several types of support:

  • One-on-one counseling by your primary health provider or a smoking cessation specialist.
  • Smoking cessation groups to help you provide and gain support from other Veterans navigating the quit process.
  • 1-855-QUIT-VET: VA’s smoking quitline that offers phone counseling in English or Spanish.
  • Text messaging support through SmokefreeVET and SmokefreeEspanol. Text the word VET to 47848 sign up.

Remember, it’s never too late to quit! Learn more about available smoking cessation resources.

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Just Saying No to Pain Meds

Image of a male doctor taking the pulse of a female patient.

Dr. Robert Friedman uses Chinese pulse diagnosis to determine deficiencies or excesses in a patient’s energy in order to guide acupuncture treatment. The technique is well over 2,000 years old.

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., once made the following observation: “Less is more and usually more effective.”

Increasingly, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appears to be taking the same view when it comes to dispensing pain medications. At the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, for example, a little less than three percent of the total patient population is on chronic opioid therapy. That’s five percent below the national percentage for patients receiving such drugs.

An opioid is a drug such as morphine or oxycodone. They ease pain, but they can also cause physical dependency.

The Right Reason

“Opioids have been around for 3,000 years,” said Dr. Robert Friedman, head of the medical center’s Pain Management Team. “They’ve been around that long for a reason. They work. But it’s important that we find the right dose, for the right patient, for the right reason. And that’s what our Pain Management Team here in Charleston does.

“We spend a lot of time learning about the patient,” he continued. “Because the fact is, there are a lot of Veterans who’ve been on opioid therapy for a long time who would do just as well, if not better, without opioids — or on a reduced dosage.”

During the last five years, Charleston’s Pain Management Team has helped more than 400 Veterans ease off their pain medications. “A big part of our success,” Friedman observed, “is getting patients involved in their own care, educating them about pain management and supporting them as they try alternative methods for dealing with chronic pain.

“There’s nothing magical about what we’re doing,” he added. “All we’re doing is taking the time to talk with our patients and learn about them.”

Twinkies and Milkshakes

The pain specialist said his team takes a holistic approach to treating each patient.

“Pain changes your brain,” he observed. “It captures territory associated with mood, emotional regulation and problem-solving. So we don’t just ask the patient how much pain they’re in. “We also ask them things like: ‘How are you sleeping? How is your mood? What is the quality of your life? How are you getting along with people around you? How much are you exercising? What are you eating?

‘What are you eating?’ That’s right. Diet and pain are interconnected. “Let’s face it,” Friedman said. “You’re not going to get rid of your pain by eating Twinkies and drinking milkshakes. You are what you eat.”

An Army Veteran, Friedman said he attacks his patients’ pain the same way he would attack an enemy on the battlefield with a team of highly trained professionals.

“We use an interdisciplinary team approach to pain management,” he explained. “This team includes the Veteran, doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and mental health professionals, all working together. We establish a personalized health plan with each Veteran to minimize their use of chronic opioids, reduce their pain levels through alternative methods and improve their quality of life.”

Plan B

So if you’re in chronic pain and they’re easing you off opioids, what’s Plan B?  (It better be good.)

Friedman said his team’s holistic approach to pain management involves various complimentary treatments and alternative therapies. “We use multiple tactics to take back your brain from the pain,” he said. “If we can, we prefer to use things like mindfulness meditation, yoga, herbals, fish oil, aromatherapy and acupuncture for Veteran patients living with chronic pain.”

“When Dr. Friedman puts those four needles in the top of my head, all the pain from my waist down is totally non-existent,” said 51-year-old Navy Veteran Steve Pulliam. “I can walk with no pain.  It all goes away. It’s amazing.”

Pulliam had been under the care of Friedman’s Pain Management Team due to a crushing injury to his right foot and an impact injury to his left knee — both sustained in separate incidents during his time in the Navy. Then came the cancer diagnosis in August 2013.

“They told me I had a large mass on my pancreas,” Pulliam said. “We tried some chemotherapy to shrink it, but it ended up spreading anyway. So we opted to discontinue chemo so I could have some quality of life with the time I have left. They tell me I have anywhere from six to 18 months.”

 You’re not feeling the pain, so you’re not thinking about it. It puts you square in the middle of calmness. 
— Steve Pulliam, pain patient at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center, Charleston, S.C.

The Sound of the Ocean

Pulliam said he looks forward to his weekly visits to the Charleston VA’s Pain Management Team.

“These treatments they’re giving me are making a huge difference in the quality of my life that’s not attainable by any other means,” he said. “It gives you a sense of well-being and eases your mental and physical tensions.  It’s amazing when they put the needles in … the gastrointestinal pain goes away, the orthopedic pain goes away.”

But acupuncture is just one of many tools in the Pain Team’s toolbox.

“They use body oils … lavender and rosemary,” Pulliam said. “They put that on your stomach. After a few minutes you can actually taste it. After a few more minutes, you start to feel the effects. The lavender calms the pain in your gut and the rosemary helps with your overall calmness. They also have soft music playing in the background, or something relaxing like the sound of rain falling, or the sound of the ocean.

“I know it all sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo,” he added. “But it works.  I’m proof of that.”

Then there’s the heat lamp.

“They use an infrared lamp to heat up certain parts of my thoracic area,” said the Navy Veteran. “The heat penetrates your skin and reaches the organs inside, warming them up. So you’ve got the heat, the needles and the oils, all working together. You feel like you’re on vacation in the islands, lying on the beach, soaking in the sun. You’re not feeling the pain, so you’re not thinking about it. It puts you square in the middle of calmness. All your stress, all your worries go away. You’re free.”

But how long does the vacation in the islands last? The pain stays away for about a day-and-a-half, on average, Pulliam reported.

“If you can take away the hurt for just a little while, it makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “It gives you more strength, more power more endurance to keep going. It resets your hope meter.”

To learn more about pain management at the VA, visit

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