Waco’s Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center now can provide the gold standard in research and treatment for brain injuries suffered on the battlefield with Thursday’s opening of a 53,000-square-foot facility for the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans that sprawls across three floors of Building 93.

More than 150 people attended a grand-opening ceremony to mark the occasion, and U.S. Rep. Bill Flores said the Waco VA will become a hub for dealing with the invisible wounds of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury that have become part of this country’s global war on terror.

“McLennan County has become one of the most popular places for veterans to live or retire, and the Center of Excellence likely will mean more veterans locating here,” Flores said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spent $9.8 million to renovate a building at the VA campus on Memorial Drive to create a one-stop destination for research on returning war veterans.

“We let the contract in 2011, and our target for completion was 2014, but we lost two years because the original contractor defaulted, an issue that tied up a couple of years,” said Michael Russell, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Center of Excellence. “It turned into a five- to six-year job.

“But now it is done, and it is spectacular.”

VA top priorities

The center will meet the critical needs of those suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, Gulf War Illness, depression, emotional issues and suicidal thoughts, “all of which are top priorities of David Shulkin, secretary of Veterans Affairs,” Russell said.

Congress opened an investigation into the VA’s mental health efforts in 2014 shortly after the Austin American-Statesman uncovered dysfunction in a research program the Waco center oversaw. Among other issues, the Statesman found that a $3.6 million mobile MRI scanner bought in 2008 had seen little use.

After the investigation was opened, the paper also found that the center had taken credit for research it had tenuous connections to and had produced far less research than other VA centers for excellence. At the time, the Statesman quoted officials as saying “the new facility would revolutionize the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and other war wounds.”

Richard Seim, a clinical psychologist who will disseminate information about the center, said 70 people will work in the center’s newly unveiled facilities. Many will have permanent assignments, and adjunct personnel and specialists will make one- to three-year commitments.

“These people have been recruited from both coasts, the North and the South,” Seim said. “They are from Minnesota, Nevada, Mississippi, all over. There are a few from Texas.”

Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler said attracting these well-paid professionals to Waco will ripple through the local economy.

“We have a goal of attracting more Ph.D.s to Waco, and that can prove difficult if the opportunities are limited,” Fisseler said. “I’m told they like to hang out together. And sometimes Ph.D.s have spouses with the same credentials, and both want jobs.”

Fisseler described the Center of Excellence as world class. Its presence should quash talk of closing the entire VA Medical Center complex that arises every few years, he said.

“I’m really impressed with the research that’s going to be done on this campus,” Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “Most people don’t realize the importance of having the Center of Excellence in our community and the value of the trials it will be undertaking.”

The VA’s Seim said researchers will take a diverse approach in pursuing answers to why veterans react to their wartime experiences in certain ways, taking into consideration genetics and factors on the psychological, neurological and molecular level.

“They want to know what makes your brain injury unique,” Seim said. “A bomb blast in Afghanistan may cause a concussion in those near the blast site, including someone 40 feet away. But what sets those injuries apart? What part of the brain is injured? We will use brain scanners, including an MRI 3 Tesla, to investigate.

“We also have the technology to help veterans change their brain wave pattern, just as it is possible to speed up or slow down the heart. We also can assess neuron signaling. Neurons in those with PTSD may be overly firing, while those with traumatic brain injury may experience under-firing.”

Planned studies

Studies planned at the center include Project Serve, which evaluates returning veterans’ experiences; the SHE Study addressing sexual trauma among female veterans; the Moral Injury Project, which examines actions in war that challenge notions of right and wrong; treatment of PTSD using transcranial magnetic stimulation; treatment of traumatic brain injury using EEG neurofeedback; psychotherapy treatment of veterans; and the use of MRI scans to examine white matter pathways in the brain that may suffer damage from explosions.

Christopher Sandles, new director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, said the center will feature “top-line psychiatrists, top-line equipment, MRI-based brain imaging and research-enhanced counseling” to pursue causes and solutions to the emotional problems veterans are suffering.

Sandles said he thinks the future of the medical center is secure.

“We’re assessing the buildings here as we try to address gaps in housing for veterans,” he said. “Something probably needs to be done for female veterans with children and to create transitional housing to help homeless vets get on their feet.”

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