DALLAS – Jeff Hensley, a former Navy fighter pilot, spent 21 years in the military and did multiple deployments before retiring in 2009 and settling in Texas.
When he found himself in a dark place, the local Veterans Affairs hospital was unable to treat him. Then he heard about a private program for military veterans called the Cohen Veterans Network. He met with Dr. Amy Williams, the clinical director for Cohen’s north Texas location, near Dallas.
The clinic is one of more than five locations up-and-running around the country – with four new offices scheduled to open in the coming months, from Washington, D.C. to Denver. The network focuses on mental health and doesn’t believe in making people wait to see a professional.
The great debate over how to best meet the health care needs of veterans remains a contentious issue in America, particular after the VA was accused of neglecting those who served the country. But some believe agencies like the Cohen Veterans Network could be the solution.
"When people call the clinic we can offer an appointment within a week, so there's not really a wait time," says Dr. Amy Williams.
The Cohen network, started by hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen, offers free clinics that are funded through private donations. Perhaps the biggest draw, some say, is the family component.
“We will serve families, regardless of whether the veteran is involved," Williams said.
That means spouses and children can also take advantage of the free services, something clients say the VA is not really setup to do. Cohen clinicians say the focus on healing the entire family unit has been extremely successful and military families have responded well.
It particularly helped Hensley’s family.
The retired naval pilot said he struggled to transition back to civilian life after leaving the military. He also started to notice the toll his military service had taken on his young children and he describes that as his rock-bottom.
"I think I was most shocked about my older son,” Hensley said. “He bore the brunt of most of my deployment and my time away."
He now understands how badly his children were hurting and how they also needed help. He said his experiences at Cohen essentially gave him his life back – and his kids are also healthy.
"It would not have happened if we had never come here," he said.
Hensley applauds any efforts being made to improve the existing VA system – but adds that private competition, like Cohen, gives veterans and their families more options when it comes to seeking the best possible care available.
Something, he said, his fellow comrades desperately need more of.