Filling the void
Facilities aid vets who slip through the cracks in military care system
By Laura M. Colarusso - Special to the Times
Posted : August 27, 2007

FITCHBURG, Mass. — As Leslie Lightfoot sits in her office here explaining why battle-weary veterans scarred by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan need a private rehab center, she conjures Vietnam.

Lightfoot, who served as an Army medic from 1967 to 1970 and now works as a veterans advocate, wants to build a treatment facility for the wounded and their families to help them cope together. It’s a service that was largely missing when troops came back from Southeast Asia, said Lightfoot.

In comparing Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, Lightfoot said she hopes to highlight a void in available care for veterans who sacrifice their health on the battlefield — often losing limbs or sustaining traumatic brain injuries — by opening a privately run rehabilitation facility.

When injured troops returned from Vietnam, the level of health care was often inadequate because the medical community, including what is now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs, didn’t have the knowledge or willingness to deal with the emotional and physical conditions ailing veterans, Lightfoot said.

“After Vietnam, nobody knew what to do with these people who had been traumatized by war,” said Lightfoot, founder of Veteran Homestead, an organization of six facilities dedicated to helping sick, elderly and dying veterans. “I don’t want this to be another post-Vietnam.”

Lightfoot’s current project, the Northeast Veteran Trauma Rehabilitation Center, addresses concerns that a new generation of wounded veterans may be slipping through the cracks, not finding or getting the care they need in VA, military or private facilities.

According to VA officials, about 229,015 service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have sought VA care for conditions ranging from depression to multiple amputations. And thousands more are sure to seek help.

Lightfoot’s concern that an already overwhelmed VA system is not going to be able to provide adequate care for a steep influx of newly wounded is shared by advocacy groups such as Disabled American Veterans.

Joe Violante, national legislative director for DAV, said the VA has been hamstrung over the past several years by billion-dollar funding shortfalls that have caused a decrease in the quantity and quality of available medical care.

VA spokesman Terry Jemison denied the department is overwhelmed by demand, and said it is “prepared” to handle the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Though the numbers are rising, these veterans still represent only 4 percent of the 5.5 million patients who receive health care from the VA each year, according to Jemison.

Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., said there is a clear need for private veterans services such as those Lightfoot hopes to provide.

“As gravely wounded veterans continue to return from Iraq and Afghanistan, demand for rehabilitation services will continue to increase,” he said. “Leslie Lightfoot’s work will help to ensure that veterans returning home will be able to access the assistance they need to adapt to civilian life and cope with their physical and psychological wounds.”

Lightfoot’s objective is to raise about $5 million to build a 20-cottage facility for combat veterans on 10 acres of land allocated by Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Mass. It would be a place where troops who have sustained severe wounds — such as multiple amputations, head trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder — can learn the skills they need to have a productive life. And those who are interested and able would be able to attend classes at the college.

The campaign is in its earliest stages, having so far raised only a fraction of the anticipated cost.
Army medic, civilian caregiver

Caring for those who have served has been almost a lifelong mission for Lightfoot, who enlisted in the Army in 1967, when she was 18.

She said she volunteered to go to Vietnam, but the Army turned her down because of her gender. Instead of patching up GIs during the Siege of Khe Sanh, Lightfoot watched the steady stream of severely wounded troops flood the intensive care unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

After she left the Army, Lightfoot became a private-practice psychotherapist and board-certified expert in traumatic stress.

Sometime after going into private practice in 1979, she met a homeless Korean War veteran who was dying of cancer and had no family to take care of him. Because he lacked insurance, the private hospital he was in was about to discharge him, even though he was too sick to go to a shelter. Lightfoot’s husband and two daughters agreed to take him in, but he died before they could move him.

“That was really the eye-opener for me,” said Lightfoot, who decided to one day open her own center for hospice care for veterans.

“It was like, OK, these guys have nowhere to go.”

She raised funding through donations and grants and opened the Veteran Hospice Homestead in 1993. The hospice has grown to include a mobile medical screening unit and assisted-living homes, with beds for 74 residents. Like the other facilities in Veteran Homestead, residents pay a third of their income.

Lightfoot’s hospice facility has helped hundreds of veterans go through the dying process in comfort and with dignity.

“These are guys who would have � died on the streets alone,” Lightfoot said. “Many of them were highly decorated.”

Lightfoot wants to build what may be one of the first ventures into privatized care for the wounded. The Intrepid National Armed Forces Rehabilitation Center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio opened in January thanks to $40 million in private funds, but is maintained and staffed by Army officials.
Total rehabilitation

Lightfoot’s planned rehab center would be unique in that, as designed, it would prepare the vets to live as independently as possible and give their loved ones the tools to help them.

“We want to teach them how to do everything for themselves,” Lightfoot said. “How do you change a daughter’s diaper if you have a hook? How do you hold your baby if you only have one arm?”

It is believed the center would be the first place where troops could convalesce and get an education at the same time. In addition to giving up the land for the cottages, Mount Wachusett Community College will allow the veterans to take classes and earn degrees.

college officials have offered the use of the pool, track and wellness facilities to the veterans. The school is also letting its nursing, occupational and physical therapy students provide much of the care, said Daniel Asquino, the college president.

“There will be a symbiotic relationship,” Asquino said, noting the students will gain practical experience working with the veterans.

Raising the money remains the last hurdle. Despite the groundswell of support from Mount Wachusett, local residents and even some state lawmakers, finding the funds to build the center seems to be the biggest obstacle.

Lightfoot has raised about $30,000 to $40,000 in seed money and is applying for grants and other funding. She hopes to open the center in the fall of 2008.

“It’s one thing to wave a flag, but it’s something else to realize that that actually means something,” Lightfoot said. “Do we just support our troops until they become a problem?”

Veteran Homestead can be viewed at