“I wouldn’t mention the VA to anybody,” says Amalfitano, who served in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1968. “Today, I would recommend it to everybody.”
But only 35,000 of Long Island’s veterans have registered for the benefits they’ve earned and the coverage they deserve.
The Department of Defense has estimated that 40 percent of the 160,000 veterans returning from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next several years may have post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury.
“It takes a psychiatrist to separate the two,” says Amalfitano. If a soldier is riding in a Humvee and survives a roadside bombing, he says, the explosion may still cause a concussion that “can make your brain rattle” and cause a chemical imbalance that produces a medical condition.
Another critical distinction is between post-traumatic stress and PTSD.
“If I’m getting shot at, I’m under stress in a combat situation,” he explains. “But if I experience something horrific—the guy next to me got shot—and I’m having reoccurring nightmares or I’m walking down the street and all of a sudden I’m in the battlefield, that’s PTSD.
“I tip my hat for the VA and the DOD recognizing that,” he adds.
The numbers of those being treated bear that out.
“From what we know, of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have used the VA, about 38 percent report some kind of mental health issue, not just PTSD diagnosis,” says John Javis, director of special projects for the Mental Health Association of Nassau County and chairman of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island. “Some 17 percent report some drug or alcohol-related problem. Another 11 percent had traumatic brain injury. We also know that veterans have twice the suicide risks than non-veterans, and that nationwide some 18 veterans a day commit suicide.”
Pat Yngstrom, director of the Nassau Veterans Service Agency, knows the suicidal type.
“They don’t work and play well with other people,” he explains. “They sit in their rooms at night thinking about…crazy stuff.”
Yngstrom, now 61, who grew up in Valley Stream and served in Vietnam in 1971. He became the director of the county agency last March.
“I know guys who got into counseling for the first time five years ago and they got home from Vietnam in 1968,” he says. “They’re divorced. Some of them are alcoholics. A lot of them are dead due to some kind of substance abuse. We lost 58,491 people in combat, and we’ve had over 100,000 Vietnam veterans commit suicide since the end of the war. Nationwide.”
Yngstrom still gets animated when he recalls how he was treated after leaving Vietnam for good in 1971, where he’d been stationed with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne about three miles from the demilitarized zone.
“When I came home, I stepped off the plane at the Seattle Tacoma airport, and a young lady walked up to me and four other veterans and called me ‘a baby-killer’ and spit in my face,” he says. “That was my welcome home.”
He also can recall how his first three job interviews went after his military service.
“I was told by Sears, Mobil and Shell that they didn’t hire murderers. Right to my face. Guys who never met each other,” says Yngstrom, with a smile. He ended up working for Con Edison.
“My older brother was in Korea,” Yngstrom tells the Press, “and he says, ‘We were forgotten, and you got spit at. I don’t know which one is worse!’”
In 1986 Yngstrom had a stroke. Now he’s being treated for diabetes, which he didn’t develop until 2001, but under the VA rules, he’s covered because it’s one of the “statutorily presumptive illnesses” caused by Agent Orange.
“I changed my whole lifestyle, but it took a stroke to do it,” he explains. “My doctor told me that if I didn’t start talking about stuff like this that when it came time to walk my daughter down the aisle, my brother would be walking her down the aisle because I wouldn’t be here.”
His daughter is getting married next month. “And I will be there,” he says adamantly, shooting a wistful glance at the ceiling. “You heard that, right?”
Like his counterpart, Tom Ronayne, director of Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, Yngstrom is devoted to making sure that our Long Island veterans get all they’re entitled to.