Reflections on Veterans Day

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Maj. Ben RichardsYears ago when I was a young Army lieutenant, my reconnaissance platoon was preparing to conduct a night-time helicopter insertion far behind enemy lines to seek out intelligence critical for a large-scale operation to be conducted 48 hours later. The operation was high risk. That night as I back-briefed my Troop commander over the hood of a Humvee  in the German woods, I expressed my concern about the level of danger the platoon was facing.

My boss, an experienced cavalry scout himself who had served as an enlisted soldier and noncommissioned officer before earning an officer’s commission, replied directly: “If you get into trouble, we will roll this entire brigade to come and get you.”

At that time the war in Iraq was still over a year in the future, and the risk was largely hypothetical, but I wondered whether the Army would really risk a brigade of 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles to rescue a few men in a desperate situation. And then I didn’t think about it again.

That is until I was leading men in a real war in Iraq. In November of 2006, my Cavalry Troop was in the process of moving from Tal ‘Afar in northwest Iraq to Taji, a large operating base just outside of Baghdad. The night before our movement, a special operations team had been conducting a raid deep in the al Qaeda-controlled hinterlands of the infamous Anbar province. The raid had run into trouble and a large force of al Qaeda fighters was closely engaged with the small special operations team.

A pair of Air Force F-16 fighters scrambled to provide air support for the troops, but because the fighting had moved to such close range, they could not use their normal load of bombs without risking the lives of the men they were trying to save. With no good options, one pilot, Major Troy Gilbert, volunteered to conduct a highly-dangerous low-level night-time strafing mission in order to employ his aircraft’s 20mm cannon which could be used much closer to friendly troops.  On completing the diving attack, his plane was unable to pull out in time and crash landed in the Anbar desert.

Although he had been unable to eject, the aircraft was largely intact and it was possible that MAJ Gilbert had survived. On that chance, my Troop and over two thousand other US combat troops—an entire Army Brigade’s worth – were quickly dispatched to rescue the pilot. We had just arrived in Taji and had not even unpacked, when we sortied into the desert.

The area had never been under US control and the roads were littered with large and deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The going was slow and occasionally punctuated by the ambush of al Qaeda fighters. We reached the crash site and then searched the surrounding desert and villages for four days until we were able to find forensic proof that MAJ Gilbert had not survived the crash. After an extended search other soldiers were able to locate and bring home his remains.

During those nights in the desert, I remembered another night in the German woods and realized that I was helping to fulfill a promise made not just by my commander, but by millions of American soldiers over hundreds of years. The risk MAJ Gilbert accepted was extraordinary. As an experienced pilot, he was fully aware of the danger and the cost he might have to pay to save the lives of a few Army soldiers.

Our mission to find MAJ Gilbert was the most dangerous we had conducted up to that point. As we rolled out into the desert, we also knew the risks and willingly accepted them—also at a cost. In my unit, Corporal Billy Farris, also a young father, was killed in an ambush during the operation.

What stands out about Troy Gilbert and the incredible men and women I had the privilege of serving with was their belief in the infinite value of the life of another soldier.

Unfortunately, after returning home from Iraq as an “invisibly wounded” veteran with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that was not the ethos I found at home, particularly in the very institutions created to care for nearly one million combat-disabled veterans like me. In 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof observed in the New York Times, “if you want to understand how America is failing its soldiers and veterans, honoring them with lip service and ceremonies but breaking faith with them on all that matters most, listen to the story of Major Richards.”

What is exceptional about Kristof’s statement is that he made it after I had been provided the top level of care available within the DOD and VA medical systems—a level of care only a few hundred service members a year were given access to. However, these alleged best efforts were only a façade.

Suffering from daily, debilitating pain and unable to function in most facets of life including interacting with my wife and our four children, I began to seriously consider suicide. That was when Stand for the Troops came to my rescue and joined me in my personal battle against the invisible wounds of war. They arranged for me to receive several months of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) from one of the leading practitioners in the country, Dr. Paul Harch at Louisiana State University (who provided the treatments for me at his own expense).

It was the first genuinely effective medical care I had received since returning home, and it has restored much of my life. Today I am a productive and contributing member of society, with a loving family and a high quality of life.

As we reflect this Veterans Day on the blessings derived from the service and sacrifice of so many men and women and their families, we begin to realize the magnitude of the task before us in living up to legacy heroes like MAJ Troy Gilbert.

I am pleased to report that there remain many great Americans, both in and out of uniform, who share the belief in the infinite value of a soldier’s life. Please join me in supporting Stand for the Troops in making sure the nearly one million veterans disabled by TBI and PTSD finally get the genuinely effective care they deserve.

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HBOT: A PTSD Therapy for Veterans that Works

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This Saturday (November 11, 2017), Fox TV will air a broadcast on how Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (“HBOT”) is helping hundreds – if not thousands – of Veterans with PTSD and TBI.

This special program will be aired on Veterans’ Day. The video below was prepared by The National Hyperbaric Association to demonstrate that “real” therapy is available to the tens of thousands of brave warriors suffering from PTSD and TBI.

HBOT is a proven therapy widely used around the world for patients suffering from brain trauma. Sadly, the folks at the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) are still peddling the same stale “evidence-based” therapy programs to Veterans that do not work:

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”) and,
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (“CPT”)

As SFFT reported earlier, PE and CPT “have been largely ineffective in reversing brain damage to Veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI. And yet, the spokespeople steadfastly defend these therapies and argue that other therapies ‘lack evidence’ to justify their endorsement, read ‘funding.’”

“The VA has very little evidence to show that PE and CPT therapy programs have done much to reduce the incidence of PTSD symptoms among Veterans against the “gold-standard” standardized PCL-M tests currently used by the VA. The chart below illustrates the point (50 is considered base level):

Prolonged Exposure Cognitive Process Therapy

Aside from being very expensive to administer, the ‘evidence based medicine’ supporting the effectiveness of PE and CPT programs currently administered by the VA is SADLY LACKING.”

It is most interesting to note that the VA has done everything possible to discredit HBOT to promote their own failed therapies.   In many cases it has led to tragic consequences, such as the recent suicide of Eric Bivins.

What Does the VA Have Against HBOT?

It is difficult to understand the VA’s hardline against HBOT, particularly when the overwhelming statistical “evidence” clearly demonstrates that the VA’s own therapy programs are severely flawed.  Furthermore, this is the same institution that hooked Veterans on opioids (and indirectly fueled a national epidemic) based on flawed clinical trials.

Dr. David Cifu Testifying

Dr. David Cifu, the Dr. Orange of PTSD at the VA?

How many more times do we have to listen to Dr. David Cifu testify before Congress that he (read “the VA”) knows best when treating Veterans with PTSD?   It is ironic to note that in David Cifu’s quest to discredit hyperbaric oxygen therapy, his employer (Vincent Viola – once tapped to be Secretary of the Army) is alleged to treat his racehorses with HBOT.

Clearly, Vincent Viola knows a bit more about the benefits of HBOT considering that Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby this year.

One might ask why thoroughbreds get the benefit HBOT while Veterans are denied HBOT at the VA?  I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that the “serious” money lies in new clinical trials and “breakthrough” drugs peddled by Big Pharma.

Or is it the VA’s special take on insanity?:  Providing Veterans with the same battery of lame therapy programs and psychotic drugs, but hoping for a more positive outcome.”

It is sad to see our Veterans being sold down the river by less-than-candid mouthpieces of a rudderless VA, but the truth is as clear as the Presidential report on Fighting Drug Addiction and Opioid Abuse.  Look no further than the damning statement: “the modern opioid crisis originated within the healthcare system.”

If you think that common sense and a desire to genuinely help our Veterans with PTSD and TBI will manifest itself soon – you are likely to be disappointed.

As they say at the Beltway Racetrack, “the fix is in!”

If you genuinely want to help our brave Veterans, write your Congressmen (and women) and Senators and State and Local representatives.  Also, do take the time to learn the benefits of hyperbaric oxygen and give generously to SFTT and the National Hyperbaric Association to support our brave Veterans.

Veterans Day is more than waving the flag.  Don’t let the festering sore at the VA continue to kill hope among our Veterans and their loved ones.

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Opioid Crisis: Contributors to the Current Crisis

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The opioid crisis is real.  It is hard to believe that people dying from drug overdoses each year now exceed the total number of brave warriors who lost their lives in Vietnam.

Homeless Veteran

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this drug epidemic must be faced with determination to eradicate this awful plague.  Yet, in looking at The President’s Final Report on Fighting Drug Addiction and Opioid Abuse, I find myself wondering how we got to this sad state of affairs in the first place.

Despite having only 5% of the world population, the US consumes 80% of the world’s global opioid supply.  More to the point, these are not disreputable drug barons south of the border peddling addictive drugs, but licensed members of the medical profession encouraging the use of lethal and addictive prescription drugs.

There have been pharmaceutical companies like the Sackler’s firm of Purdue Pharma that used their considerable marketing skills to hype the benefits and hide the risks of opioids, but the most obvious revelation is that the very institutions that should have protected our backs may have been complicit in enabling them:  the Healthcare System.

Specifically, the President’s Final Report (pages 20 – 23 with just a few summarized below) argues “that the modern opioid crisis originated within the healthcare system and have been influenced by several factors:”

Unsubstantiated claims: High quality evidence demonstrating that opioids can be used safely for chronic non-terminal pain did not exist at that time. These reports eroded the historical evidence of iatrogenic addiction and aversion to opioids, with the poor-quality evidence that was unfortunately accepted by federal agencies and other oversight organizations.

Pain patient advocacy: Advocacy for pain management and/or the use of opioids by pain patients was promoted, not only by patients, but also by some physicians. One notable physician stated: “make pain ‘visible’… ensure patients a place in the communications loop… assess patient satisfaction; and work with narcotics control authorities to encourage therapeutic opiate use… therapeutic use of opiate analgesics rarely results in addiction.

The opioid pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply chain industry:   To this day, the opioid pharmaceutical industry influences the nation’s response to the crisis. For example, during the comment phase of the guideline developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for pain management, opposition to the guideline was more common among organizations with funding from opioid manufacturers than those without funding from the life sciences industry.

Rogue pharmacies and unethical physician prescribing: The key contributors of the large number of diverted opioids were unrestrained distributors, rogue pharmacies, unethical physicians, and patients whose opioid medications were diverted, or other patients who sold and profited from legitimately prescribed opioids.

Inadequate oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):  The FDA provided inadequate regulatory oversight. Even when overdose deaths mounted and when evidence for safe use in chronic care was substantially lacking, prior to 2001, the FDA accepted claims that newly formulated opioids were not addictive, did not impose clinical trials of sufficient duration to detect addiction, or rigorous post-approval surveillance of adverse events, such as addiction. 

Reimbursement for prescription opioids by health care insurers: Sales of prescription opioids in the U.S. nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, largely paid for by insurance carriers. It is estimated that 1 out of 5 patients with non-cancer pain or pain-related diagnoses are prescribed opioids in office-based settings.

Lack of foresight of unintended consequences: As prescription drugs came under tighter scrutiny and access became more limited (via abuse-deterrent formulations and more cautious prescribing), market forces responded by providing less expensive and more accessible illicit opioids.

Public demand evolves into reimbursement and physician quality ratings pegged to patient satisfaction scores:  Prior to this year, poor patient satisfaction with pain care could lead to reduced hospital reimbursement by Medicare through Value-Based Purchasing (VBP). There are often higher costs or no specific reimbursements for alternative pain management strategies, alternative pain intervention strategies, or spending time to educate patients about the risks of opioids.

Given the scope of the problem, there is no question that urgent action needs to be taken to address this epidemic.  Nevertheless, one must question why we should entrust leadership  of that initiative to the same institutions that enabled the epidemic in the first place.

As reported earlier by SFTT in Opioids:  Bipartisan Incompetence in DC and vividly documented in the joint Washington Post and 60 Minutes Report, there are entrenched political and business interests at play.    I find it highly unlikely that they will release their grip on the brass ring with so much money at stake.

To date, there is no price tag on resolving the drug overdose crisis.  Isn’t it ironic that the same cast of characters that profited from addicting our nation, now get a chance to monetize the painful withdrawal process?  In the corporate world, we refer to this as “double-dipping,” but in politics it is simply “business as usual.”

If you honestly believe that “big government” will get us out of the drug addiction and opioid abuse crisis the government and healthcare system colluded to create, P. T. Barnum has a bridge to sell you.

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GAO to Investigate VA Over Treatment and Therapy of Veterans with PTSD

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At the request of Reps. Mike Coffman, R-CO., and Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., the Government Accountability Office (“the GAO”) agreed Sept. 27 that it “will review the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) treats patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat-related conditions.”  In particular, the GAO will focus on “how heavily the VA relies on powerful psychotropic drugs to treat patients.”

OxyContin - Veteran Addiction

As reported in the Armed Forces News, “this decision is a victory for combat veterans everywhere who are suffering from PTSD and who have been prescribed a cocktail of very powerful drugs to mask their symptoms in lieu of other forms of interactive therapy that work to bring down the stress levels of PTSD to a point where they are no longer debilitating,” said Coffman.

While this new GAO study may come as a big relief to many Veterans with PTSD (and their families), the tragic findings will surprise few who monitor the shoddy treatment procedures provided to Veterans with PTSD at the VA .

For those expecting that this “new” GAO study will result in any improvements in the treatment our Veterans receive, I refer you to the December, 2014 GAO study of the VA with the title of “Improvements Needed in Monitoring Antidepressant Use for Major Depressive Disorder and in Increasing Accuracy of Suicide Data.”

Here is a brief summary of the conclusions reached in this GAO audit as reported by SFTT in March, 2015 in an article entitled GAO Hammers VA on Protocols for VA Suicides:

– 10% of vets treated by VA have major depressive disorder and 94% of those are prescribed anti-depressants
– 86% of audited files of vets on anti-depressants did not receive a follow up evaluation within the required 4-6 weeks
– 40% of the same group of veterans on anti-depressants did not receive follow up care within the recommended time frame
– 63% of suicide cases were inaccurately processed

This means 500,000 veterans have major depressive disorder and 470,000 of those are prescribed anti-depressants. This means it is possible that 404,200 veterans on anti-depressants are not receiving timely follow up assessments.

With data integrity breaches like this, it is no wonder GAO cited the suicide data VA relies on as “not always complete, accurate, or consistent.”
Credits: GAO Audit Shows 63% Of Suicide Cases Improperly Processed

If Representatives Coffman or McLane Kuster expect different patient outcomes, they are likely to be as disillusioned as Kimi Bivins, the wife of Veteran Eric who tragically committed suicide earlier this year.    There is little need to request a GAO study to find out how dysfunctional the VA has become.  Simply listen to Kimi describe how her husband was treated at VA facilities.
Even as far back as 2012, the VA knew that opioids were not appropriate for treating PTSD, and yet, the VA continued to provide Veterans with lethal prescription drugs knowing full well the consequences.
While SFTT could point out many similar government studies on inefficiencies at the VA, it seems to be far easier for politicians to request new studies, since they never bothered to read the existing studies or insist on much needed reforms.
Sadly, the VA has become a “law unto itself” and no amount of well-intentioned “studies” or GAO audits will do anything to turn the VA around unless politicians on both sides of the aisle take a sledgehammer to break up the VA into manageable components.   As of today, the VA is simply too large to succeed in its mission.
We can continue to study the problem, but for the sake of our brave Veterans and their families, it is time to take action!
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Equine Assisted Therapy Study for Veterans with PTSD

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Last week, I attended a delightful get together at the NewYork-Presbyterian Military Family Wellness Center in New York City.  Directors JoAnn DiFide and Yuval Neria discussed promising new initiatives designed to help Veterans and their families cope with PTSD and TBI.

Dr. Neria is Professor of Medical Psychology at the Columbia University Medical Center and “Scientific Advisor” to Stand for the Troops (“SFTT”).  Found below is a photograph of Dr. Neria together with Eilhys England, the CEO and Chairperson of SFTT.

Yuval Neria and Eilhys England

Dr. Neria leads a PTSD and Trauma Research and Treatment Program at Columbia University designed to “improve the lives of individuals exposed to trauma through premier mental health services, innovative translational research and education and training of the next generation of lead physician-scientists.”

At Columbia’s research center, Dr. Neria is spearheading several projects “aimed to advance research on the neurobiological mechanisms of PTSD and the brain’s resilience to its effects.”  In particular, SFTT was deeply involved in helping to fund a program (fMRI study) that helps traumatized individuals develop the mechanisms to distinguish between safe and dangerous situations.

More recently, Dr. Neria has become interested in evaluating the benefits of equine-assisted therapy.    The Man O’War Project is the outgrowth of that initiative and was launched in partnership with The Earle I. Mack Foundation, Columbia University Medical Center, The New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Bergen County Equestrian Center.

The Man O’War Project is the first-ever clinical research study to determine the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy (“EAT”) and establish guidelines for the treatment of military veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”).

The goal of the Man O’War Project is to “develop a manual for EAT-PTSD that can be delivered in a standardized fashion.”  In an initial test program 8 Veterans experienced a reduction in PTSD symptoms of between 26% and 74% over eight weeks in a non-riding group.

This year (2017), the Man O’War Project hopes to test 60 Veterans using a rigorous standardized clinical testing procedure and then to publish their findings in the hope of seeking grants for larger scale research projects and the dissemination of standardized training to other equine facilities that support Veterans.

With the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) “missing in action” to help Veterans with PTSD, it is reassuring to see our prominent Universities and  Medical Centers taking a vital role in helping to develop new therapy programs for Veterans suffering from brain trauma.

If you would like to learn more about the Man O’War Project please CLICK HERE.    SFTT is honored that Dr. Yuval is an important member of our Medical Task Force.  To learn more about the promising therapy programs supported by SFTT, visit our Rescue Coalition.

 

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The Department of Veterans Affairs and Service Dogs

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) receives considerable public criticism for its failure to provide service dogs to Veterans with PTSD and TBI.

As reported earlier by SFTT, the VA provides service dogs to blind Veterans, but has balked at providing service dogs to Veterans who are less than totally physically disabled.  The recurring argument from VA spokespeople is that there is a lack of “clinical evidence” to support the benefits of service dogs.

service dogs for Veterans

Consider this testimony by Dr. Fallon of the VA:

“I would say there are a lot of heartwarming stories that service dogs help, but scientific basis for that claim is lacking,” said Michael Fallon, the VA’s chief veterinary medical officer. “The VA is based on evidence based medicine. We want people to use therapy that has proven value.”

The argument is a brief synopsis of Dr. Fallon’s testimony to the House Subcommittee and Government Reform provided in April, 2016.

Dr. Fallon’s testimony and defense of the VA’s status quo is similar to the testimony of Dr. David Cifu on PTSD therapy and Dr. Alvin Young (aka Dr. Orange) on the lethal side effects of Agent Orange used on the deforestation of Vietnam.

The VA has set itself up as “judge and jury” to determine what range of medical services it will provide to Veterans.  Any “new” therapy that has not been blessed by “evidence based medicine,” is summarily dismissed by the gatekeepers at the VA.  In fact, the VA often uses spokespeople and expensive long-term clinical studies to avoid providing much needed therapy to Veterans.

Furthermore, there is strong evidence to suggest that the DoD purposely manipulated testing procedures on hyperbaric oxygen therapy (“HBOT”) to produce clinical outcomes more to their liking.

As reported earlier,  Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) have been largely ineffective in reversing brain damage to Veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI.   And yet, the spokespeople steadfastly defend these therapies and argue that other therapies “lack evidence” to justify their endorsement, read “funding.”

“The VA has very little evidence to show that PE and CPT therapy programs have done much to reduce the incidence of PTSD symptoms among Veterans against the “gold-standard” standardized PCL-M tests currently used by the VA.   The chart below illustrates the point (50 is considered base level):

Veterans Affairs Fails at PTSD

Aside from being very expensive to administer, the “evidence based medicine” supporting the effectiveness of PE and CPT programs currently administered by the VA is SADLY LACKING.”

While the general public and Congressional leaders may buy the pitch from VA Spin Doctors, Veterans are seeking other forms of therapy outside of the VA.  The problem is that few can afford to do so.

The Case for Service Dogs for Veterans

Training a service dog is relatively expensive.  Most estimates suggest that the cost of training a service dog to be in the neighborhood of $20,000.  The training of a dog can last some five months after the dog reaches maturity (about six months) to another 18 months depending on the rigorousness of the training.  In addition to training the dog, the Veteran needs to spend a considerable amount of time with the service dog to develop an effective relationship.

As we reported earlier, Maj. Ben Richards spent seven weeks in intensive training with his new service dog, Bronco.  According to Ben, it was about 4 hours of training a day (generally in the morning) and a few weekend sessions.  Taking into account “training the Veteran” could add considerably more to the overall cost.  For those interesting in learning more about the steps involved in training a service dog, I refer you to this excellent FAQ provided by Psychiatric Service Dog Partners.

While the VA currently does authorize the use of service dogs for Veterans, many State and charitable organizations have sprung to the support of Veterans.  In addition to Ben’s heartwarming story, many other Veterans have benefited from the companionship of service dogs.

Several organizations like 4PawsforAbility and Train a Dog and Save a Warrior,- SFTT Rescue Coalition Partner – are actively training and providing service dogs to Veterans.  These organizations and several others rely on the generous contributions of others to support our Veterans.

While the VA continues to study the benefits of service dogs, new results are not expected until 2019.

One might justifiably ask why it takes the VA 9 years to study the benefits of service dogs for Veterans with PTSD (yes, Congress mandated a study in 2010), but Dr. Fallon and the VA spinmasters will provide you a compelling answer if you are naive enough to buy it.

Based on the sound work of many charitable organizations training service dogs, it is beyond reasonable for the VA to soft-peddle its failed therapy programs and help these struggling organizations provide service dogs to Veterans.  Wouldn’t it help provide “real” evidence to support their long overdue study?

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New Study Suggests that Blood Test Can Detect PTSD

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According to a recent Dutch study involving military personnel deployed to Afghanistan, there is evidence to suggest that blood-based miRNAs (Micro RiboNucleic Acids) may serve as “candidate biomarkers for symptoms of PTSD.”

Image from Biochemistry for Medics

A research group from the Netherlands collected blood samples Dutch soldiers before, as well as 6 months after deployment.

Author of the study, Dr. Laurence de Nijs (Maastricht University), states the following:

“We discovered that these small molecules, called miRNAs, are present in different amount in the blood of persons suffering from PTSD compared to trauma-exposed and control subjects without PTSD.

“We identified over 900 different types of these small molecules. 40 of them were regulated differently in people who developed PTSD, whereas there were differences in 27 of the miRNAs in trauma-exposed individuals who did not develop PTSD.

“Interestingly, previous studies have found circulating miRNA levels to be not only correlated with different types of cancer, but also with certain psychiatric disorders including major depressive disorders. These preliminary results of our pilot study suggest that miRNAs might indeed be candidates as predictive blood markers (biomarker) to distinguish between persons at high and low risk of developing PTSD. However, several steps need to be performed before such results can really have an impact on the larger field and in clinical practice. In addition to working towards biomarkers, the results may also provide novel information about the biological mechanisms underlying the development of PTSD”.

While more studies are required to confirm the results of this study, it does suggest that blood-testing could help identify risk factors for susceptibility to PTSD for troops scheduled for deployment.

It is difficult to generalize from such a limited test sample but clearly, evidence based markers seem to be a far better way to test the incidence of PTSD and brain trauma than the simplistic PTSD screening questionnaires currently employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”).

There continues to be much promising research into preventing and curing PTSD and TBI, but sadly the VA continues to insist on failed therapy programs while sponsoring research studies than focus on helping Veterans cope with the symptoms of brain trauma rather that provide meaningful solutions.  The cannabis and ecstasy studies suggest that the VA feels far more comfortable dispensing prescription drugs rather than provide Veterans with a meaningful path to full recovery.

While thousands of Veterans continue to suffer from combat-related brain trauma, the VA has done precious little to help these Veterans and their families cope with this debilitating problem.  While the VA insists that they are doing everything possible to help Veterans with PTSD and TBI, the story of Eric Bivins and countless other brave warriors paints a far different picture of what Veterans can really expect at the VA.

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Marijuana and Veterans with TBI

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Thomas Brennan, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps, is the founder of The War Horse, a veterans’ news site, and a co-author of “Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War,”  makes an impassioned plea to “make pot legal for Veterans with TBI.”

Cannabis for Veterans with PTSD and TBI

In an “Opinion” piece for the New York Times of September 1, Mr. Brennan states to following:

“Most of the major veterans groups, including the American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, support regulated research into the medical uses of cannabis . . .

“What I know is that it works for me. If I hadn’t begun self-medicating with it, I would have killed myself. The relief isn’t immediate. It doesn’t make the pain disappear. But it’s the only thing that takes the sharpest edges off my symptoms. Because of cannabis, I’m more hopeful, less woeful. My relationship with my wife is improving. My daughter and I are growing closer. My past is easier to remember and talk about. My mind is less clouded. More than anything, it feels good to feel again. My migraines and depression don’t control my life. Neither do pills.

“But I live in fear that I will be arrested purchasing an illegal drug. I want safe, regulated medical cannabis to be a treatment option. Just like the sedatives and amphetamines the V.A. used to send me by mail. And the opioids they still send to my friends.”

Personally, I am delighted that Mr. Brennan feels better and is recovering his life, but one man’s (or woman’s) experience with “alternative medication” hardly makes a compelling argument to justify universal endorsement.

Superficially, one could argue that pot is far less “addictive” than opium and the opioid variants currently endorsed by the FDA and the AMA, but I suggest that Mr. Brennan compelling argument touches on a far more important issue:

Officially sanctioned / LEGAL therapies to treat Veterans with PTSD and TBI are not working! 

No one should be surprised that Mr. Brennan and many other brave warriors are seeking alternative therapies – either not sanctioned or “illegal” – because the limited treatment options provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) are tragically failing the needs of our heroes and their families.

Last week, Maj. Ben Richard’s commented on a disturbing series of videos that trace a widow’s tragic quest to seek help from the VA for her husband who committed suicide when denied alternative therapy.

The tragic suicide of Veteran Eric Bivins is just another example of the abuse of power at the VA that literally makes “life and death” decisions based on a long history of failed treatment programs:  Cognitive Process Therapy (“CPT”) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”).

If the only choice for Veterans with PTSD and TBI is institutional abuse and lethal prescription drugs, why not run the risk (illegal or unsanctioned) and seek help that works?  In the case of Mr. Brennan, cannabis might be the answer, but SFTT seeks out programs that may offer life-changing therapies rather than medication that simply deals with the symptoms.

Personally, I don’t think that potentially addictive drugs are the long term answer for PTSD and TBI, but I can certainly understand why many Veterans seek relief outside the limited number of options and callous disregard currently shown by the VA.

Perhaps Secretary David Shulkin can bring about much needed reform at the VA, but the odds are firmly stacked against him.

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SFTT Military News: Week Ending Sep 1, 2017

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Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT at info@sftt.org.

BBC Analyses US Military Options for North Korea
President Trump has said “all options are on the table” after North Korea fired a missile over Japan. So what could military action against Kim Jong-un’s regime actually look like? As a ballistic missile passed over the Japanese island of Hokkaido residents were warned to take cover. The launch was a provocative act, which has been followed by warnings from the North Korean regime that it was just a “first step”. The UN and several nations have imposed sanctions on North Korea, while President Trump said he was considering the next steps. But while the US has unrivalled military strength, the range of options it actually has against the hermit country are limited. Read more . . .

North Korea Kim

US Gives Military Assistance to Pakistan with Strings Attached
The Trump administration notified Congress on Wednesday that it was putting $255 million in military assistance to Pakistan into the equivalent of an escrow account that Islamabad can only access if it does more to crack down on internal terror networks launching attacks on neighboring Afghanistan. The dueling messages sent to Pakistan — promising aid but attaching strings if the country’s counterterror efforts fall short — are part of an increasingly confrontational turn in an alliance that has long been strained.  Read more . . .

Sen. Rand Paul Urges Caution in Transferring Military Equipment to Local Police
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is urging President Trump to reconsider his decision to lift Obama-era limits on the transfer of surplus military equipment to local police forces. “To support our local police, we must first realize they aren’t soldiers. But today the line between the two is being eroded,” he wrote. “Given these developments, it’s natural for many Americans — especially minorities, given the racial disparities in policing — to feel like their government is targeting them. Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice isn’t paying close enough attention,” Paul added.  Read more . . .

New Law to Stream VA Appeals
Every major veteran service organization except Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) supported legislation, signed into law last week, to reform a woefully clogged process for deciding appeals of veterans’ disability claims. Even VVA concedes the new “three-lane” option for appealing claims, when implemented via regulation a year or more from now, will produce speedier appeal decisions and begin to reverse what continues to be a steadily rising backlog of appeals, soon to surpass a stunning 500,000.  Every veteran appealing a claim knows something is wrong with a system that, on average, takes three years to get a final decision. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says some veterans are waiting six years or more.  Read more . . .

The Illegal Psychedelic Drug MDMA (aka “Ecstasy”) to Treat PTSD?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated the illegal psychedelic drug MDMA, commonly known to partygoers as Ecstasy, as a “breakthrough therapy” to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The designation was announced Saturday and provides a fast-track for possible approval of MDMA as a prescription drug. It’s the result of years of trials sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, that have included veterans since 2010. “It doesn’t mean anything is approved or guaranteed, but it does mean this gets special attention from the FDA and allows it to move through the regulatory process more quickly,” said Michael Mithoefer, a clinical investigator who’s involved in the study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.  Read more . . .

Is the VA Undermining Marijuana Study?
marijuanaThe first U.S. study to test marijuana as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, which had been in the works since 2009, finally got under way last February and has enrolled 25 subjects since then. But the lead researcher, Phoenix psychiatrist Sue Sisley, says the study, which needs a total of 76 subjects, has been jeopardized by a lack of cooperation from the local Veterans Health Administration hospital. “Despite our best efforts to work with the Phoenix VA hospital and share information about the study,” Sisley writes in a recent letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, “they have been unwilling to assist by providing information to their patients and medical staff about a federally legal clinical trial happening right in their backyard that is of crucial importance to the veteran community.” At the current recruitment rate, she says, the study will not be completed within the time required by a $2.2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

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How the VA Callously Treats Veterans: A National Disgrace

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As we reported earlier, Veteran Eric Bivins committed suicide after being unable to find the support and care he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”).

Found below are a moving – AND MOST SAD – series of videos by Kimi Bivins, Eric’s spouse which describes her experiences with the VA in attempting to find the proper care for her husband.

Kimi’s experiences with the VA are not dissimilar from my own and countless of others who have sought care from the VA. I agree with Kimi that it is a “national disgrace,” yet the VA continues to remain largely unaccountable for their callousness and disdain in treating our brave warriors.

I would encourage readers to watch these powerful videos to understand the frustration and agony of a loved-one in dealing with the VA.

Kimi’s YouTube videos are presented in a more or less chronological order, with limited commentary by me other than to clarify certain expressions.

Published on March 23, 2016. Kimi’s Initial PRIVATE Appeal for Help.

Published on March 10, 2016. Kimi’s Frustration on Getting VA Paperwork

Published on March 18, 2016. Eric in a VA Facility

Published on March 23, 2016. Eric is Coping, but Life is Still Very Difficult

Published on April 13, 2016. Eric at Independent Treatment Facility.

Published on May 15, 2016. Eric is Better, But Seeks Therapy Outside the VA

Published July 11, 2017. After Eric’s Suicide

While many will be shocked by these series of videos, it is far too commonplace within the VA.

Before Eric’s suicide he had been accepted into a program to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT.  I credit HBOT with saving my life and enabling me to begin the long road to recover my life.

It is sad that some uninformed doctor at the VA would shatter Eric’s dream of life-changing therapy by parroting the VA’s institutional bias against HBOT.

Dr. David Cifu and his cronies at the VA and the DoD have done their upmost to discredit HBOT and other alternative therapies to support the failed VA programs of Cognitive Process Therapy (“CPT”) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”).

Failed VA therapy programs to treat PTSD have been documented numerous times by credible independent studies.   And yet, VA spokespeople still parrot the same stale party line.  Veterans with PTSD and TBI are not deceived and have abandoned the VA in droves.

It sickens me to watch these tragic videos of Kimi documenting her fruitless attempt to navigate the uncaring bureaucracy of the VA.  In my estimation, Kimi’s videos should be mandatory training for all employees at the VA.

While the VA provides much needed comfort to thousands of Veterans, those Veterans with PTSD and TBI need to look elsewhere for REAL therapy.

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