The Department of Veterans Affairs Pacific Island System is unlike few other medical systems in the world.
Based in Hawaii, it spans approximately 2.6 million square miles and is responsible for all veterans of the U.S. armed forces residing in Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
Dr. Adam Robinson, the system’s new director, arrived this summer to take on the job amid a raging COVID-19 pandemic. The retired admiral, who served as the Navy’s 36th surgeon general, said his work cuts across three time zones and the international dateline.
Taking the helm of the VA’s Pacific Island System comes with both unique challenges and responsibilities. In a study of 2003 recruiting data Pacific Islanders at the time were over-represented in the U.S. Army by 249% proportionally to other ethnic groups. Pacific Islanders were also over-represented in rates of those killed and injured in Iraq.
The post-9/11 generation of veterans in particular has faced unique hurdles as they try to reintegrate into society even as war continues. For over two decades troops have continuously deployed to farflung conflict zones including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and other countries.
Today less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, in some cases leaving the burdens to intergenerational military families. Many younger veterans have reported feeling isolated from and forgotten by a civilian society. Even before the pandemic, unemployment among post-9/11 veterans was on the rise.
“When you send people to war, they have injuries of the body. And they also have injuries of the mind. They have injuries, also, of the spirit,” Robinson said. “Those are moral injuries of war that occur. And that is a real injury, and it really is something that we need to care for.”
Robinson said that the VA has come a long way in better differentiating the different causes of mental and emotional problems that veterans can face as they try to reintegrate into society. Stay home orders related to the pandemic have exacerbated feelings of isolation.
But Robinson said that telemedicine and online tools can better reach people in their homes, whether it’s for mental health care or physical ailments.
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