The late Ernie Simons, former director of health and memorials division at the Georgia War Veterans Home (GWVH) and a decorated Vietnam veteran, had a long-standing dream to create a unit at the facility that would help disabled veterans returning to civilian life primarily but not limited to post 9/11 conflicts suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and multiple amputations. Projected completion for the 58-bed rehabilitation center is set for 2021, making Simons’ dream a reality. 

“The veterans we are seeing return now have immediate needs,” said Tonya Jarrett, clinical director for the Georgia Department of Veterans Services at GWVH. “These younger veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, multiple amputations, and their needs now are to still be productive within the community and independent and involved with their families.”

According to Jarrett, Simons related his idea for the sub-acute therapy unit to her in 2014, as he saw the overwhelming need to assist returning veterans to acclimate back into civilian life with their families and learn how to live productively with their combat-related injuries. At that time, Jarrett was head of the facility’s therapy department and witnessed firsthand the need for such a unit for Georgia’s veterans. 

“He asked me what I thought of the concept of organizing a unit to treat the needs of the veterans suffering from the three most prominent injuries incurred during modern combat. I was immediately on board with the idea,” she said. “We started simply with the plan to provide speech and occupational therapy, but it was soon evident that so much more was needed.” 

She and Simons visited several locations treating veterans in Georgia, including Ft. Stewart, Shepard’s Spinal Clinic, and the traumatic brain unit at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. It was through these visits they began to realize the treatment needed was far more involved than first thought. 

“Everything from cognitive-behavioral to psychosocial, substance abuse, spiritual needs, recreational therapy — it became a culmination of visiting and talking with the veterans to see what the needs are. We spent a year and a half in research to see what the needs were and what the scope of treatment needed to before the population within Georgia that we would be serving and to formulate the plan from the construction standpoint and the treatment standpoint,” she said.  

Jarrett described Simons as being very passionate about this project and said he wanted to live long enough to know that it was going to happen. Suffering from pancreatic cancer, the ex-Marine fought his last battle until the agreement for the unit’s funding was secured. He passed away in May of last year. 

“He breathed, slept, and ate this unit, and during his last speech at the street naming dedication, he spoke about the good this unit would do for generations of veterans. We are glad to have put into place many of the designs he wanted in the Russell Building,” she said. 

According to Russell Feagin, the current director of health and memorials division at the GWVH, Phase II has recently finished, which included a rebuild of the inside of the Russell building creating residential quarters with a less institutional feeling and a more comforting home-like experience. The building will contain a dining hall and common recreational areas. 

Feagin explained the unit funding is split between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Georgia Department of Veteran Services. The state construction grant provided through the Federal VA provides a 65% match, with 35% coming from allocated funds through the state budget. 

“The public always wants to know why it takes such a long time to get programs like this up and running,” said Feagin. “For a one-year construction period, you are looking at a three-year funding process for securing funds. We’re looking at early 2021 for the first patients to come in.” 

The majority of Phase III, according to Feagin, is the planned renovation to the third floor of the Wheeler Building, where the physical and occupational therapy will take place. A new building located to the side of the Wheeler Building that officials are calling the “Pod” is a single-floor living unit with a kitchen that will help residents get prepared for independent living. 

“The Pod is representative of the new direction the VA wants to go in the future for all veteran facilities. It is a style that is getting away from institutional living,” said Feagin. “The residents will go to the Pod after they have received intensive therapy and will be doing daily living skills such as cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry.” 

Feagin said that veterans’ families would be involved throughout the entire process so that they and family members will form a picture of what life will be like once the veteran returns home. The intent of the program is individualized care for each veteran entering the unit and cases will be formulated into a therapy plan that will average 10-12 weeks long depending on need. 

“One of the advantages of this program is that it is not limited in the time allowed to each participant as other programs are. This program is designed for them to stay as long as needed, and if it is determined they cannot return home, then they can move into the skilled units on campus,” he said. 

As with the skilled nursing side of the GWVH, the new sub-acute unit will be managed by the PruittHealth Corporation headquartered in Norcross, Georgia.

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