Since 1999, May has been designated as National Military Appreciation Month, an opportunity for Americans to show their gratitude for those who have served in our country’s armed forces. Through large events and small gestures alike, people in communities across the United States are honoring the achievements and sacrifices of our past and present service members and veterans.

One way we honor our veterans is by providing them the health care they deserve. An initiative aimed at delivering health care to veterans more quickly and efficiently is the Veterans Choice Program, which was created under the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. Through the program, veterans are eligible to participate if they 1) live more than 40 miles from a Veterans Administration facility with a primary care physician; 2) are unable to get a VA appointment within 30 days of the preferred date or within 30 days of the date deemed medically necessary by their physician; or 3) don’t have access to medical specialists.

Across Ascension, the nation’s largest not-for-profit health system, caregivers are now treating veterans as part of this program. Veterans can seek primary care, specialty care and mental health services at Ascension’s 2,500 sites in 24 states and the District of Columbia. These services are critically important to veterans whether they are returning from a recent deployment or seeking treatment for a persistent condition.

Participating in the Veterans Choice Program opens up a new avenue for health care providers to deliver compassionate, personalized care to our veterans. The strains of service and the unique duties that our men and women in uniform are asked to perform often put them at a greater-than-average risk of experiencing certain medical conditions, including traumatic brain injury (TBI) and chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP). Civilian medical providers in the program have been trained to understand military culture; appropriately screen veterans based on their military service; and offer the right treatment, resources and tools to address service-related illnesses and injuries.

African-Americans account for 17 percent of active duty military personnel, and just as members of the larger black community experience the health care system differently than other racial and ethnic groups, African-American service members and veterans have unique health care needs that require an approach that takes into account their values, backgrounds and beliefs.

One area in which this becomes clear is mental health. Up to 20 percent of service members returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is considered to be a “signature wound” of these wars, and it often co-occurs with other psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse.

African-American veterans face unique barriers when it comes to addressing PTSD and related mental health issues. A report by the Office of the Surgeon General, for example, notes that studies have found African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be afraid of mental health treatment than whites, and they are more likely to cite stigma as a reason for not seeking help for psychological conditions. Through the Veterans Choice Program, health care providers have the opportunity to address these and other health care challenges that are specific to African-American veterans and service members overall.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” While there is more work to be done to ensure America’s veterans receive the medical care they need and deserve, the Veterans Choice Program marks an important step in translating our commitments to service members into measurable results. Our community — and our nation — will be stronger for it.

Patricia A. Maryland is the president of Healthcare Operations and Chief Operating Officer of Ascension Health.

Patricia A. Maryland is the president of Healthcare Operations and Chief Operating Officer of Ascension Health.

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