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Aspire Center In San Diego Looks At Five Years Of Treating Iraq And Afghan Vets

Ervin Reyes retired Army Ranger at Aspire Center in San Diego, Feb. 22, 2019
Andi Dukleth
Ervin Reyes retired Army Ranger at Aspire Center in San Diego, Feb. 22, 2019

When the Aspire Center opened five years ago, the intensive inpatient treatment center was the San Diego VA’s answer to the influx of returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the stresses these veterans face are from combat. James Ritche, 29, was deployed to Afghanistan, but the images that really follow the Marine veteran are from when he was deployed to aid the disaster in Fukushima Japan in 2011. The city was hit by a tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed. Ritche said he remembers coming ashore in a small craft to see bodies floating in the water.

“A lot of deceased people. Family that were looking for their other family members. A lot of distressed civilians and plenty of destruction,” Ritche said.

He stayed in the Marines until 2016 but he said he didn’t really feel he had a problem until last year.

“I knew I had some stuff going on while I was in the service but I was surrounded by brothers and sisters that understood,” he said. “You go into to work every day surrounded by 1000 of your closest friends.”

Using that bond is a central part of the philosophy behind the VA’s Aspire Center. San Diego had an influx of returning combat veterans, said Carl Rimmele, director of the center.

“We found the younger veterans coming from more recent conflicts didn’t meld well with older veterans in VA programs. So when you put them together, often times they would not be able to complete,” Rimmele said.

Veterans are treated for PTSD. They receive job training and other life skills training. The treatments are the same therapy used at VA’s throughout the system, but here the vets stay for months, he said.

“So instead of one time a week evidence-based therapy,” he said, “they’re getting therapy five days a week, six days a week, seven days a week.”

After five years, Aspire is trying to measure its success. The VA sees PTSD as a chronic illness. Symptoms are managed and hopefully reduced. Four hundred patients have gone through the program in five years. On average, they have reduced their use of VA mental health services about 50 to 65 percent, after about 18 months after they leave, Rimmele said.

In 2003, Ervin Reyes was in a compound in Ramadi when a truck loaded with explosives detonated in the center of his compound. After he retired, he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone that he could still smell burning flesh.

“It’s so heavy that it makes all of my training feel like nothing. I couldn’t breathe sometimes. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t rest but you don’t get tired,” he said.

Like Ritche, it took a family member to push Reyes into treatment.

Five years after it opened, Aspire remains the only center of its kind in the VA system dedicated to Iraq and Afghan vets.

Technically, the program is only for veterans at risk of being homeless. The San Diego VA wants to loosen that designation. Feeling the intense inpatient treatment may be the best way to help more vets like Reyes and Ritche move on with their lives.

VIDEO: Aspire Center In San Diego Looks At Five Years Of Treating Iraq And Afghan Vets