A program started by Cullman County veterans to help other veterans get treatment for post-traumatic stress is getting a boost from the state of Alabama.
The state is providing $200,000 for veterans in a nine-county area to get stellate ganglion block procedures. Cullman County’s VFW is the only post in the nation known to have a program that covers the cost of veterans receiving the treatment, and Alabama is now the only state to fund the program.
SGB is a shot administered to the neck that “resets” the central nervous system, which controls the “fight or flight” instinct. Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Ken Brown, host of “The Veterans’ Show,” said Department of Defense studies have shown the treatment to have a 90% effective rate; however, the Department of Veterans Affairs has not authorized its use for veterans.
In 2020, Cullman businesses, individuals and local governments donated $80,000 to cover the cost of treating veterans with SGB and have donated that much already this year, said Brown. The treatment costs $800 per shot. Beginning this year, veterans travel to Nesbitt Pain Associates on the campus of Ascension St. Vincent’s Birmingham. Prior to that, they had to go to Maryland to receive the treatment.
Cullman VFW Post 2214 Commander Brian Monk, who has had the shot twice, said the effect is immediate.
“Some of them break down emotionally from what they’ve bottled up for 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Monk emphasized the procedure is not a cure, but it is proving to be an effective treatment.
“It lets you live your life again,” he said.
So far, 170 Cullman veterans have received SGB treatment, and Monk said doing so has saved 15 lives. Depending on their level of symptoms, he said, some veterans have required only one shot, while others, like him, have gone back for additional treatments.
The $200,000 allocation from the state budget will allow 160 veterans from Cullman, Limestone, Blount, Walker, Winston, Lawrence, Marion, Marshall and Morgan counties to undergo the procedure. The counties included are represented by state Sen. Garlan Gudger and Rep. Randall Shedd, who pushed for the appropriation in the state budget.
“We got that in the budget, and we were going to start on Oct. 1 when the new budget came in, but we had some group meetings and said this is too important to hold back,” Gudger said. “At the state Legislature, mental health has always been a high priority for myself, Randall Shedd, [Rep.] Scott Stathagen and [Rep.] Corey Harbison, and we’ve been blessed to work as a team that we’re now able to be the first in Alabama to bring back ‘Montgomery money’ to place towards these shots for the veterans of our communities.”
“It’s exciting to know that not only is a life saved, but the quality of life is restored for the veteran as well as the veteran’s family,” Shedd said. “I don’t know of anything that we can do in Montgomery that’s better than this.”
As part of the pilot program, WellStone, a community mental health center, will be collecting data on its effectiveness. WellStone Chief Operation Officer Chris Van Dyke said a national assessment tool used for PTSD will be given to veterans prior to making their appointment and in two followup visits.
“That’s where our data is really going to come from,” he said.
Gudger said the data will be important for future state funding and to grow the program.
“If you show the data, if you show that this has been positive, I think we can turn that in before the next budget and from that they will increase the funding and get to a larger area,” he said.
He said the long-term goal would be to expand the program across the state and offer the treatment to first responders as well.
There are 375,000 veterans in Alabama, and it’s estimated about 45,000 of them suffer from post-traumatic stress. Monk said he knows what they are going through and hopes as many as possible will take advantage of this opportunity.
“I am where I am today because of the shot,” he said.
Veterans can begin making appointments now by calling WellStone at 256-255-1020. All appointments will be handled through the Cullman WellStone location. The shots will continue to be given in Birmingham with appointments available beginning Aug. 1.