By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 14, 2019 at 1:02 PM

In what appears to be the first such partnership in the country, the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center has since last summer teamed with a number of local fire departments to help veterans in need to get to the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center more easily.

Veterans can enroll with their local fire department so that if they dial 911 in an emergency, first responders will know to transport them to the VA hospital.

"This is critical for us and our veterans," said Ben Thelen, Emergency Department nurse manager, who also served in the Army, in a statement.

"One, if someone is sick or having a heart attack, we don’t want them driving themselves here. And two, we are specially trained in post-traumatic stress and other war trauma issues.

"We know about 6,000 of our ED patients a year – about 25 percent – need to be seen for mental health and substance abuse issues. We are specially trained to offer that."

The Milwaukee VA is currently working with the West Allis Fire Department and the North Shore Fire Department, which serves Bayside, Brown Deer, Glendale, River Hills, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and Fox Point.

The program is expected to expand to include Greenfield and St. Francis Fire Departments soon.

As part of the partnership, Thelen plans educate local first responders and equip them with the screening questions used by the VA to assess patients for suicidal thoughts.

"Unlike some other hospitals, we can offer 24/7 mental health care, with psychiatrists and psychologists working in the ED," Thelen said.

"That is a huge timesaver, when someone is in a mental health crisis, or thinking of suicide. It could be the difference that saves a life."

Veterans in the participating municipalities who which to sign up should receive forms that are being mailed out this month. For more information or to receive a form if you didn’t get one, call Ben Thelen at (414) 384-2000, ext. 43924.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.