President Obama recently announced his decision to deploy 30,000 to 35,000 more troops in Afghanistan.
The Dole medical center won't see as many of those when they return as VA hospitals in more populous areas or close to posts that house ground troops.
Still, it has the capacity and staff to help as many returning veterans from the Afghan surge as it gets, Sanders said.
Nationally, veterans advocates said, the government must develop a better plan to handle the wounded when they come home. Eight years of war have overtaxed the health care systems that treat service members and veterans, several said, and the build-up will compound the stress.
Treatment at medical facilities that the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs operate is viewed as world class despite well-publicized lapses. However, both often struggle to care for large numbers of soldiers and Marines with devastating physical and mental injuries.
Coordination between the military and the VA can be slow, veterans groups say, and waiting times to see doctors and process benefit claims are long. A recent VA investigation found that 11,000 claims filed at offices around the country were still unresolved after more than a year.
And suicides by combat veterans are at record levels.
"A war plan has to include the care of vets on the back end," said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "What was lacking in the Iraq war was a plan for all the resources. We're going to encourage them to not just think about bombs and bullets, but social workers and hospital beds."
The Dole VA hospital in Wichita processes its patients as quickly as possible, Sanders said. It completes its compensation and pension exams within 25 days, on average, he said.
The entire claims process takes longer through the regional office, he said, but the hospital's part is done very quickly.
"Some VAs are really struggling with the compensation and pension exams. We've consistently done a good job of that here," Sanders said.
During a recent visit for an appointment at the center, Army Spc. Benjamin Eichelberger, 28, of Wichita, who served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman and suffered traumatic brain injury from countless explosions, said he hasn't experienced delays at the center.
It took two weeks to get his compensation and pension review completed after he finished his paperwork, he said.
"I'm going through it fairly quickly, from what I hear. And smoothly," Eichelberger said.
Suicide among returning veterans is less a problem in Wichita than nationally, where 1,000 veterans who receive care through VA hospitals commit suicide annually.
There was one suicide among veterans who use the local VA's services last year, and none in the three years before that, said Jason Deselms, a psychologist and suicide prevention coordinator at the Dole medical center.
"We're on the lower end in terms of attempts. We do tend to get people in faster than maybe some of the other VA centers," Deselms said.
He said the center does a lot of community outreach to identify suicidal veterans.
The center identified 24 suicide attempts in the last year among all veterans, not just those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.
That attempt rate has been steady, he said.
VA funding increase
The Obama administration has proposed the single largest increase in VA funding over the next five years, and has taken steps to improve the delivery of health care to veterans. They include new programs to reduce homelessness and expand access to health care through more outpatient clinics and tele-medicine.
The Dole center has been adding programs and facilities to accommodate the rise in returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
It recently opened an eye and behavioral health recovery annex in the Parklane Shopping Center. Its behavioral staff has grown from 25 to 45 in the past five years.
It is building a new prosthetics and orthotics facility, scheduled to be completed this spring.
It also has built a residential facility for homeless veterans at the center, and has special primary-care clinics for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Beyond Wichita, it is expanding its community-based out-patient clinics, doubling the size of its clinics in Hays and Salina, and seeking approval for a new clinic in Augusta.
It also has hired a coordinator for a medical foster home program. It is one of the few VA hospitals to offer the program, which is for veterans who need 24-hour supervision but don't necessarily need to be institutionalized and can stay in their communities.
It also is expanding its home tele-health program, which monitors veterans in their homes, reducing the need for them to travel to a clinic.
Its doctors and nurses also make home visits to keep veterans out of the hospital.
"We really want to serve our new veterans coming back from the global war on terror on their terms, try to keep them out of institutions, keep them healthy, help them re-adapt to civilian life the best way they can," Sanders said.