Congress gave traumatized war veterans "a major league gift" by approving a pilot program that will provide federal payment for private treatment, the founder of a North Bay residential center said Friday.

Fred Gusman, chief executive officer of The Pathway Home in Yountville, said the new program marks the beginning of a collaborative effort by the Defense Department, Department of Veterans Affairs and nonprofit organizations in helping heal the psychological wounds of war.

The program, authorized in a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, "restores your faith that finally we all will be able to work together," Gusman said.

Gusman, a Vietnam veteran who worked for the VA for 28 years, said he began working with Thompson on the idea a few years after starting The Pathway Home in 2008.

Housed in a building on the grounds of the California Veterans Home at Yountville, the private facility has treated about 380 soldiers, both veterans and men still on active duty, suffering from post-traumatic stress and related problems.

Veterans pay nothing for the four-month treatment program, which receives no government funding and depends on foundation grants, public donations and fundraising, Gusman said.

Enrollment is currently limited to about 15 men due to budget constraints, and Gusman said he and other staffers have periodically worked without pay to keep the program going.

Nearly two-thirds of Pathway Home's clients have been referred by the VA, and a survey of 100 graduates found that 93 percent were "doing great" two years later, he said.

In a written statement, Thompson said his bill, wrapped into the $607 billion Department of Defense spending act approved by the Senate last week, enables veterans "to access cutting-edge care, even if it's offered outside of our military medical facilities."

The bill, co-authored by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, allows active duty troops to receive treatment from private facilities under an investigational pilot program.

There's no guarantee that Pathway Home will be included in the initial program, but Gusman said his organization — with national accreditation and a state license — has "all the right credentials."

Getting federal reimbursement for its services "would be a very big deal," he said.

Thompson, a Vietnam war combat veteran, said his bill, expected to gain President Barack Obama's signature, is "great news for our nation's servicemembers."

About one in five of the more than 2.4 million troops deployed to Iraq and Afganistan over the past decade suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression and other problems that compromise their return to society.

Traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of modern warfare, produces symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress.

Gusman, who started the VA's first residential treatment program for post-traumatic stress in Menlo Park in 1978, said he dropped the word "disorder" from that condition — typically called PTSD — to indicate that people can recover from it.

With early intervention in such cases, "we can more than likely mitigate a chronic disorder," he said.

Every dollar spent in that effort helps avoid future costs in health care, homeless services and law enforcement, Gusman said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)