How To Support Veterans With Diabetes
While diabetes is a common health concern for the general population, it’s even more prevalent among U.S. military veterans.
Diabetes affects nearly 25% of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) patients, with roughly three million estimated to have prediabetes.
Veterans – especially males – may be at a higher risk of developing diabetes due to factors like obesity, health disparities, and exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange during war.
When paired with two additional risk factors for diabetes – depression (affecting 11% of veterans) and post-traumatic stress disorder (affecting nearly 13% of veterans) – it’s clear that many veterans need and deserve ample support with managing and preventing diabetes.
What diabetes resources are available to veterans?
If you are a military veteran who has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, there are programs you may be able to take advantage of.
For your medical care and coverage, the biggest resource is the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The VBA provides benefits to veterans who have developed diabetes during their service or as a result of their time in service.
The latter can be due to factors like, but not limited to, physical disabilities that limit your ability to exercise or mental health conditions like depression or PTSD.
Ultimately, the VBA bases the amount of coverage you receive on how debilitating your condition is (known as a “VA disability rating”). You will need to prove with medical records that your time in the service triggered your diabetes (this includes type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and even gestational diabetes).
While a link between military service and gestational diabetes is yet to be established, VA research finds that female veterans with PTSD have higher rates of gestational diabetes compared to those without PTSD.
If you can prove a connection, you’re eligible for diabetes-related care, said U.S. VA press secretary Terrence Hayes.
“Diabetes care includes medical subspecialty care like endocrinology, nephrology, cardiology, mental health, podiatry, ophthalmology, nutrition, diabetes self-management education, medications, and supplies,” Hayes said.
There is, however, one exception: Agent Orange exposure. Veterans exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War do not need to prove a service connection to qualify for VBA benefits. If you were exposed to Agent Orange and have a condition that can be caused by said exposure – like type 2 diabetes – you qualify for benefits.
How to apply for and use VA benefits
The application process for VA benefits is relatively straightforward. You can fill out your application online and apply by phone or mail.
Once you’ve submitted your paperwork, you’ll receive a response within one week. Once enrolled, you’ll be set up with a full health care team.
“Veterans are generally assigned to a primary care team that manages their overall health care, including diabetes care, in collaboration with other specialty clinics,” said Hayes.
And the benefits don’t stop at medical care. The VA provides additional resources and programs that veterans with diabetes can use, some of which have received recognition from the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
“The ADA awarded recognition status in 2017 to a joint Department of Defense and Veterans Health Administration diabetes self-management education program that can be implemented at any facility,” Hayes said.
Attendees of the Diabetes Self-Management Education and Support (DSMES) program saw their A1C lowered by an average of 1.2%, Hayes added.
Other diabetes resources for veterans
The VA is not the only organization working to help improve the lives of veterans. There are other services and resources that veterans with diabetes can seek for support, especially at the local level.
For example, peer counseling and support groups can be beneficial for veterans living with diabetes. In one study, researchers found that veterans who underwent group-based peer counseling noticed “improved health-related quality of life, health behaviors, and chronic disease control.”
Another recent study saw similar results, with researchers noting that informal peer support from fellow veterans “was associated with self-management behaviors which may influence better glucose control.” In other words, receiving support from their peers vs. the general population helped veterans better manage their diabetes.
Aside from in-person groups, there are many resources available online. Reddit and similar online forums allow veterans to speak freely to one another anonymously. For those looking for extra support, telehealth services provide quick and easy access to health care professionals and therapists.
Finally, some universities offer educational materials and workshops designed to help people learn more about living with diabetes. Michigan State University, for example, offers free in-person and virtual diabetes management workshops through its MSU extension program, with its next workshop (for veterans and non-veterans) in February 2024.
How veterans can lower their diabetes risk
Because obesity can play such a strong role in a diabetes diagnosis, the biggest step veterans can take to lower their diabetes risk is to reach and maintain a healthy weight through things like lifestyle changes and incretin-based therapies.
However, this may be difficult for some veterans due to chronic pain, injuries, or other conditions caused by their military service. Working with a dietician can be helpful (especially in these cases) when planning out diabetes-friendly meals, for example. The VA is one of many organizations that offer one-on-one nutrition counseling and education for the veteran population.
“Veterans can self-refer to these programs, meaning they do not need a provider’s order or consult to participate,” Hayes said.
Similarly, seeking out the guidance of a physical therapist or personal trainer (who has experience training people with diabetes) may help establish a lasting and sustainable workout routine. This also applies to anyone living with diabetes or obesity, not just veterans.
Physical health aside, managing mental health is vital when lowering diabetes risk factors, especially for military veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder, a common condition among veterans, increases the risk of developing diabetes due to several factors, including inactivity and antidepressant use.
PTSD increases the risk of gestational diabetes as well, making the management and treatment of PTSD crucial for all veterans, regardless of age or gender.
Finally, veterans can lower their diabetes risk by not smoking. People who smoke are 30-40% more likely to develop diabetes than nonsmokers. The VA reports that close to 15% of veterans smoke cigarettes, meaning that out of the nine million patients the VA treats annually, over one million smoke.
Fortunately, the VA offers programs specifically tailored to stop smoking, including a “quitline” that provides tobacco cessation counseling to any veteran under the VA’s care.
Tips for supporting a veteran with diabetes
Receiving support from friends and family can make a difference in the well-being and quality of life of anyone with a chronic illness. Here are some tips for providing assistance and understanding:
Educate yourself: Learn about diabetes care and potential complications. This knowledge will enable you to better support the veteran in your life.
Encourage healthy habits: Offer encouragement and join activities that promote a healthy lifestyle, such as regular physical activity and nutritious meal planning.
Be understanding: Understand that managing diabetes can be emotionally and physically challenging. Be patient and empathetic.
Offer assistance: Assist with tasks that may be difficult, such as grocery shopping, transportation to medical appointments, or preparing diabetes-friendly meals.
Utilize the VA: The VA has multiple resources for veteran support that family members and friends can utilize. Diabetes management education and support groups are offered both online and in person.
Help with paperwork: Applying for benefits and filing claims and appeals can be cumbersome and stressful. You can assist the veteran in your life by working with them to manage some of their medical paperwork.
Provide emotional support: Diabetes is a difficult condition to manage. Offering emotional support and encouraging open communication about feelings and concerns can go a long way.
Be prepared for emergencies: In case of a diabetes-related emergency, know what to do and have the necessary contact information for health care providers readily available.
Supporting U.S. military veterans with diabetes involves a combination of preventive measures, access to resources, and understanding.
By utilizing benefits offered by organizations like the VA, engaging in peer counseling, and cutting out risk factors like smoking, veterans can learn to manage their diabetes and live the healthy, happy lives that they deserve.