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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

30th Annual Olin E. Teague Award Presentation
Room 334, Cannon House Office Building
October 20, 2010

Good afternoon and thank you for coming to this important ceremony—the presentation of the 2010 Olin E. Teague Award. For 30 years now, VA has bestowed this award in recognition of significant contributions in an area of vital importance: rehabilitating and improving the quality of life for war-injured Veterans.

To help present this award today, we are honored to have members of the Teague family with us, including Olin Teague’s daughter, Jill, who is representing her father.

It is wonderful to be here in this room, where Olin “Tiger” Teague spent so much of his time championing the men and women who have borne the battle on behalf of our country. As a highly decorated combat Veteran of World War II, Chairman Teague knew, more than most, what our Veterans go through on the battlefield and what battles they face when they come home.

Chairman Teague remains the longest-serving chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs since it was formed in 1946—18 years of service advocating for Veterans. The lives of millions of Veterans were greatly improved as a result of his efforts.

So, it is fitting that we gather here today to honor another man whose daily efforts at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, improve the lives of Veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder—PTSD.

The psychological consequences of war have affected every generation of Veterans. We have seen that quantified in our own clinical studies and qualified in art and literature throughout the ages.

The reality is that Veterans often return from war with hidden wounds. If those wounds are left untreated, they can cause debilitating problems—not only for the returning warriors, but also for the family members, friends, and caregivers who welcome them home.

To help Veterans get the medical care and benefits they need, VA recently simplified claims processing for those suffering from PTSD. Our new process no longer focuses on documenting a stressor event, and it streamlines the delivery of medical care and benefits to Veterans with verifiable PTSD resulting from combat.

This new regulation is just one way VA is working to ease the suffering of Veterans with PTSD. We’re also counting on VA clinicians to provide our patients with outstanding care. Certainly, with a clinical psychologist like Dr. Tuerk working for us, we are making great strides toward providing healing and hope for Veterans suffering from PTSD.

Dr. Tuerk is one of the Nation’s leading innovators in PTSD treatments—improving care to Veterans through new therapeutic techniques and the use of technology.

He is a national consultant for the rollout of a groundbreaking new therapy that treats PTSD by repeatedly exposing Veterans to the triggers that make them anxious.

These prolonged-exposure treatments help Veterans get used to their bad memories so that they are no longer debilitating. These treatments greatly reduce the suffering of Veterans with PTSD.

On top of that, Dr. Tuerk is the first clinician in the country to show that that these highly effective PTSD treatments can work just as well when therapists use telehealth technology to treat Veterans in their homes—incredibly important, because this brings critical care to Veterans in rural areas … and to other patients who can’t travel for regular treatment sessions.

With telehealth technology, Dr. Tuerk and his colleagues interact with patients in one-on-one videoconferencing sessions—maintaining highly successful, quality care that saves Veterans travel time, minimizes their time away from jobs, and is more cost effective for VA.

Earlier this year, Dr. Tuerk and his colleagues published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress the findings of a pilot study on prolonged exposure therapy delivered by telehealth.

The new treatment is an impressive advance for Veterans with PTSD. But it’s just the beginning. Dr. Tuerk’s clinic also became the first in the country to publish findings on in-home exposure therapy for Veterans with PTSD.

With in-home exposure therapy, therapists actually go to a patient’s home in special circumstances to treat PTSD.

One of Dr. Tuerk’s patients—a 24-year-old Marine who had recently returned from Iraq—was experiencing post-traumatic stress from his combat experience. The patient said he felt compelled to check his front door and peek out of his window blinds many times each day. He avoided crowds and was unable to focus on his education.

The patient first received in-person therapy sessions at the medical center. Then Dr. Tuerk went to his house to replicate noises and sounds that upset the Veteran.

Soon, with Dr. Tuerk’s in-home exposure therapy, the Veteran’s checking behaviors decreased. After a few more sessions, the patient no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. That is success.

Now, how many therapists in this country would take time to go to their patient’s house to provide treatment? Dr. Tuerk is exceptional. He knew he could not have accomplished the same results in the office. He took a Veteran-centric approach and concluded that he needed to go to the Veteran. His efforts demonstrate that, with effective treatment, Veterans with PTSD can recover.

Patients are enthusiastic about the success of Dr. Tuerk’s treatment. The 24-year-old Marine who went through the in-home exposure therapy said, “I can feel my emotions now, and my memories don’t bother me. I am even proud of some of them.”

A 29-year-old female Veteran from Iraq said, “I feel normal now. I could go anywhere. I even want to go to the movies and don’t care if it is crowded.”

A 62-year-old Vietnam-era Veteran said: “After 30 years, I don’t feel fragile anymore. I don’t just tolerate social events, I enjoy them. I don’t just tolerate my family, I love them.”

Research shows that Veterans going through therapy with Dr. Tuerk and his trainees experience statistically significant and large reductions in clinical measures of PTSD.

And he is sharing what he’s learned throughout VA. He is a national and regional PTSD mentor to other VA clinicians, working to introduce evidence-based therapies and solve problems throughout our system.

He is one of just 12 national workshop trainers for the prolonged exposure treatment roll-out that I mentioned earlier, supervising dozens of full-time VA clinicians across the country. And he has published 14 academic articles—11 in the last two years alone.

He has done all of this, and he has only been with us since 2007 … and he’s not yet 40! I am told he could certainly pursue more lucrative appointments elsewhere, but he has chosen to stay at VA because he is committed to improving the lives of our Veterans.

I’d like to take a moment to express my gratitude to his supervisor, Dr. Hugh Myrick; to his mentor, Dr. Ron Acierno; and to Florence Hutchison, Chief of Staff of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. They have given Dr. Tuerk the time to pursue academic research, shepherded his work at VA, and told the world about it.

As with all organizations, people are our most important resource. We will only be able to transform the department into a 21st century agency by providing them with the mentorship, guidance, and opportunities for growth and advancement that you have given Dr. Tuerk.

Dr. Tuerk is an example of a clinician who has taken the ball and run with it. Members of the Charleston Medical Center Mental Health Service Line have won numerous awards for providing superior Veteran care. Because of Dr. Tuerk, they are able to deliver a higher level of care—more personalized, but also more measured, so they can see what works and what doesn’t.

Dr. Tuerk is a clinician who goes above and beyond the call of duty in supporting those who have served—a passionate, innovative, and devoted advocate of Veterans.

His supervisors in Charleston knew they had a rising star on their hands from the moment he walked through the door. The Olin Teague award for the rehabilitation and improvement in the quality of life of war-injured Veterans could not be presented to a more worthy recipient this year.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to present Dr. Peter Tuerk with the 2010 Olin E. Teague award.

On behalf of the Secretary and our Nation’s Veterans, congratulations and thank you.