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VA Doctor provides a generation of care to homeless Veterans

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Photo of Dr. Arnold Gass

Dr. Arnold Gass, director of External Clinical Services, VA San Diego Healthcare System

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

With nearly a quarter century devoted to helping homeless Veterans, Dr. Arnold Gass of San Diego VA Medical Center has not only treated his patients but also helped them to rebuild their lives during the annual Stand Down in San Diego.

Gass and his team of VA volunteers provide medical services to nearly 950 of the city’s poorest residents during the outreach program.

The 24th annual event was held July 15-17.  Its goal is to provide a large range of services including legal assistance and employment counseling that would otherwise be difficult for homeless Veterans to take advantage of.

This year was Gass’s final term as medical director.  During his time with stand down, many things have changed while some things have remained the same.

“It’s an amazing experience,” said Gass of his tenure with Stand Down.  “You feel like you are fulfilling a role in society that you would hope others could also be a part of.”

As director of the medical services tent for the last 24 years, he’s seen his share of ailments with homeless Veterans.  He treats nearly 25 patients a year for alcohol intoxication.  Other consistent issues include eyesight, dental and foot care problems, which has also consistently been treated in high numbers since the beginning. 

In the 1980s, the number of homeless residents in cities across the country increased substantially, leading to an increased social awareness of the problem.  In response, Veterans Village of San Diego created Stand Down in 1988 with a specific aim of helping Veterans.

According to numerous studies during the 80s, homeless Veterans suffered from increased rates of certain diseases than non-Veterans.  They also suffered from greater rates of mental health and alcohol abuse problems than their counterparts.  As a response to the specific needs of homeless Veterans, Stand Down created a medical services tent, with Dr. Gass at the forefront.

“Back then, I was the sole representative from the VA,” said Gass, who is Director of External Clinical Services for the VA.  “I had a life philosophy where people had jobs and were productive members of society.  I wanted to see that homeless Veterans had the same opportunities.”

His own beliefs matched closely with the original principal of Stand Down – to let homeless Veterans know that like life in the military, they have someone out there who’s watching their back.

Since the beginning, Stand Down has grown to various cities across the nation.  Unfortunately, the number of homeless being served has also increased, from 450 local homeless Veterans in 1988 to 947 in 2010.

The response has also grown since the beginning, with nearly 3000 volunteers from military and civilian communities banding together to help.  Behind the scenes, Dr. Gass has experienced an overwhelming amount of support from the VA over the years.

“The administration has gotten behind me 100 percent,” said Gass.  “I couldn’t have achieved as much as I have without the support of the leadership and the volunteers that have helped me out.”  Gass estimates that nearly 200 VA employees are now involved in Stand Down. 

During this year’s stand down, the medical services tent provided care to 421 Veterans and their dependents.  Services included dispensary services, testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis, skin and foot care, mental health, and alcohol withdrawal treatment.  Non-medical tent services also included eye exams and dental services, along with alternative medicine such as chiropractic work.  Gass recommends visiting the closest VA medical clinic for more serious conditions.

While treating patients is a personal reward for him, Gass is truly inspired to know that he made a difference in the life of a homeless Veteran.  It’s one reason he comes back year after year.  Another reason he comes back was true at the beginning as it is today.

“Even though he’s retiring, he’s still looking for ways to improve,” said Marlene Carvajal, an equal opportunity manager at the VA who has known Dr. Gass for 21 years.

As the doctor continues to support the Stand Down in the future, that’s really all he can do.  

For more information of Stand Down, please visit http://www.vvsd.net/standdown.htm