SCOTT SIMON, host:
Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich announced this week that his state will test all of their National Guard members returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan for brain injuries. The state will also offer the screening to other veterans and provide a 24-hour hotline with counseling for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The number of brain injuries has increased with the use of roadside bombs and other explosives.
Tammy Duckworth is director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She's a major in the Illinois National Guard and was a battle captain and Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq where rocket-propelled grenade struck her helicopter. The injury severed both of her legs. Last year, she was a Democratic candidate for Congress.
Director Duckworth joins us from our studios in Chicago. Director Duckworth, thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Director, Department Of Veterans Affairs, Illinois): Thanks for having me here.
SIMON: Tell us about these injuries. It's our understanding that hospitals screened for the obvious and severe ones, what are you looking for?
Ms. DUCKWORTH: We're looking to be a supplemental program to what the federal government and the VA is doing. Up until this point, there has been no comprehensive screening of the troops who do not look like they have any physical injuries coming home.
So for example, in Illinois, we have quite a few transportation units. And you could have a soldier who's been driving a truck in Iraq for 18 months. And in the course of that deployment, he could have struck two or three different IEDs, and thanks to great armor, has survived the attack and nothing happened to him.
But he may actually have had several concussive events and have had a brain injury. And there's no program in place to screen those individuals. So we want to be there to make sure that 100 percent of our service members that we can put our hands on, specifically the National Guard will get screened.
SIMON: So somebody could not be aware necessarily that they've suffered that kind of injury for a while?
Ms. DUCKWORTH: Exactly, and it is a cumulative effect. It's sort of like high school football. When you have a young man who's playing high school football and he gets two or three concussive events over the course of the school year, at a certain point, he certainly gets screened. Yet we're not doing the same for our soldiers.
SIMON: Are you concerned that at some point the Veterans Administration might say, well, we didn't diagnose it so we're not going to help him or her take care of it?
Ms. DUCKWORTH: If the federal VA refuses to take care of these individuals, the state of Illinois will step up and we will provide the treatment for these individuals.
SIMON: You're opening this hotline, too, where troubled veterans can call with accounts of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ms. DUCKWORTH: Yes. You know, Illinois is a fairly large state with not very many VA hospitals that are spread out throughout the state. There's tend to be clustered in and around Chicago and the major cities. So we can have veterans who are 150 to 200 miles away from the nearest VA clinic.
Most people who are suffering from PTSD will not get in the car and drive three hours to go in and see if they may or may not have PTSD. But at 2:00 in the morning on a Saturday when you're curled up on your bedroom floor because you've just had a nightmare, it sure would be nice to have a hotline that you can pick up the phone and call right then and there and get help.
SIMON: I don't want to put you on the spot recommending that you need to keep a good working relationship with the Veterans Administration, but do you begin this program out of any judgment that you think that the federal Veterans Administration is not providing the comprehensive help that would be necessary for people returning from war?
Ms. DUCKWORTH: Well, I have a very good relationship with the VA since I go to the VA for my care. I have nothing but the best things to say about the staff of the VA hospital, especially the one that I go to - Hines VA.
We started this program out of just my having talked to veterans across the state, talked to experts in the field and realized that basically the federal VA is such a large bureaucracy that they can't be as nimble as we can at the state level. And they're dealing with such large numbers.
So I really see what we're doing is a supplement to what the federal VA is doing and I think it's going to be a great opportunity to set up partnerships. But right now, we just want to make sure that we go ahead and start taking care of all veterans here in Illinois.
SIMON: Tammy Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Director Duckworth, thanks very much.
Ms. DUCKWORTH: Thank you.