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Veterans follow the instruction of Kristi Steidl during a Tai Chi class at the VA Medical Center in north Fargo on Sept. 5, 2018. David Samson / Forum News Service

Healing invisible wounds: Fargo's VA offers holistic care for veterans

FARGO—Post-traumatic stress disorder began to rear its ugly head in the life of U.S. Army Capt. Garrett Ruud during a second deployment to Afghanistan.

He took early retirement in late 2017 due to PTSD and returned to his native Fargo to try to cope. At times, Ruud wouldn't leave his house.

"There's a lot of anxiety that comes from it, a lot of sense of not being secure. Social anxiety as well, being around large crowds, noises, those sorts of things," he said.

Ruud, 49, started treatment with a mental health professional at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center here and was soon steered to a PTSD support group and the VA's new Whole Health program.

The Fargo VA is one of 13 design sites across the country to offer holistic options for veterans, including acupuncture, chiropractic care, health coaching, Tai Chi, yoga and meditation.

In time, Ruud's antisocial behavior subsided, allowing him to feel comfortable meeting new people, being in big groups and going to restaurants without having to hole up in a corner.

"Those things are starting to change for me, and that's incredible," he said.

Recently hired at the VA, he doesn't think he'd have been able to hold a job otherwise.

Danielle Olauson, coordinator of the Fargo VA's Whole Health and Patient Centered Care programs, grew up in a military family and knows pills and surgery can't fix everything that ails veterans.

"Those invisible wounds of war, the mental health struggles, the physical struggles—they're all there, and we need to have more to offer," she said.

Less pain, more movement

Acupuncturist Tasha Boehland's schedule at the VA is filling up with veterans seeking relief from low back, neck and hip pain, along with headaches, anxiety and depression.

The treatment that involves placement of almost hair-thin needles in particular areas addresses the mind, body and spirit.

"The cool thing about Chinese medicine is we don't just look at one single thing. We take the whole picture," Boehland said.

Ron Munger, 71, of Menahga, Minn., recently had his second acupuncture treatment for pain related to a broken femur suffered in Army training during the Vietnam War.

It brings him relief, allowing him to move around and sleep better.

"I'm not saying it's the cure, but it's definitely a big step forward," he said.

In many cases, veterans will feel less need for pain medication after they've had regular acupuncture treatments.

The same is true for those who visit Fargo VA chiropractor Mike Mortenson.

In younger veterans who've served in Afghanistan or Iraq, he treats back problems from carrying heavy packs and riding in Humvees.

Those pains can often be resolved quickly, he said, while injuries to older veterans are more difficult to treat.

Mortenson, who served in Somalia with the U.S. Marines, said it's an honor to treat veterans, young and old.

"It's one of the greatest things that ever happened to me," he said.

The Whole Health staff will be complete with the addition of a massage therapist this winter.

'Something to look forward to'

Before Whole Health began, the Fargo VA referred any veterans interested in holistic medicine to other providers in the community.

Having those treatments available in-house now is more convenient for veterans and makes for better collaboration within their care teams, Olauson said.

The VA has been laying the groundwork for Whole Health for years.

Flagship sites were set up across the country in 2016 before design sites were chosen last year.

As a design site, the Fargo VA received grant funding to hire full-time staff for the program and set up healing spaces for treatments.

It also must track patient outcomes, making sure veterans have better pain tolerance and improved lab results.

By the end of fiscal year 2019, every VA medical center in the country will offer some type of Whole Health programming, Olauson said.

Ruud is excited to share the program with his military counterparts who are still serving.

"It's something to look forward to when they get out," he said.

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