A former Marine comments on the V.A.’s Shameful Betrayal

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In a heart-breaking story by Mike Scotti entitle ” below:


THE Department of Veterans Affairs, already under enormous strain from the aging of the Vietnam generation, the end of the Iraq war and the continuing return of combat troops from Afghanistan, announced in April that it would increase its mental health staff by about 10 percent. But too many veterans waging a lonely and emotional struggle to resume a normal life continue to find the agency a source of disappointment rather than healing.

The new hiring is intended to address the infuriating delay veterans face in getting appointments. The V.A. says it tries to complete full mental health evaluations within 14 days of an initial screening. But a review by the department’s inspector general found that schedulers were entering misleading information into their computer system. They were recording the next available appointment date as the patient’s desired appointment date. As a result, a veteran who might have had to wait weeks for an appointment would appear in the computer system as having been seen “without a wait.” That allowed the agency to claim that the two-week target was being reached in 95 percent of cases, when the real rate was 49 percent. The rest waited an average of 50 days.

As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I found that news maddening. While the schedulers played games with the numbers, veterans were dealing with mental wounds so serious that getting proper attention at the right time might have made the difference between life and death. Even worse was that the V.A. had failed twice before to change; the inspector general found similar problems in 2005 and in 2007. This suggests a systematic misrepresentation of data and an unwillingness to stop it.

Unfortunately, the problem goes even deeper. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of veterans who are struggling with post-combat mental health issues who never ask the V.A. for help. Some, hamstrung by fear of stigma, are too proud or too ashamed to ask for help. Others don’t ask because they’ve heard too many stories from peers who have received poor care or been ignored.

I have close friends who could no longer drive because of their lingering fears of roadside bombs. Others had gone to the V.A. because they had suicidal thoughts, only to receive a preliminary screening, a pat on the back, a prescription for antidepressants — and a follow-up appointment for several months later.

I’ve had my own struggle: in 2001 I was part of the initial force of Marines who landed in Afghanistan, and in 2003 took part in the heavy fighting of the first wave of the invasion of Iraq. Since coming home, I’ve had my mind hijacked by visions of the corpses of children, their eyes blackened, at the side of the road. I recall carrying the coffins of fallen brothers. I remember losing friends who probably knew exactly what was happening to them, as they bled out on the side of a dusty road in Iraq.

And I’ve felt the shame of having suicidal feelings. Like many others, I chose to hide them. Yet, even in the darkest days of my own post-traumatic stress, when I was considering choosing between making my suicide look like an accident or taking a swan dive off some beautiful bridge, I never considered going to the V.A. for help.

My image of the V.A., formed while I was on active duty, was of an ineffective, uncaring institution. Tales circulated among my fellow Marines of its institutional indifference, and those impressions were confirmed when I left Iraq for home. At Camp Pendleton, Calif., a woman with a cold, unfeeling manner assembled us for a PowerPoint presentation and pointed us to brochures — nothing more, no welcoming sign of warmth or empathy for the jumble of emotions we were feeling. Her remoteness spoke volumes to me of what I might expect at home.

To regain veterans’ trust, the V.A. must change its organization and culture, not just hire more people. First, its leadership must be held accountable for employees’ behavior, and anyone caught entering misleading data should be fired. The agency must reach out, with public awareness campaigns and with warmth, to veterans who may be suffering in silence. It must help reduce the social stigma that attaches to the mental health issues the veterans face.

Dedicated V.A. personnel run a suicide-prevention hot line, but it is only a temporary salve for emergencies. One impressive and highly effective alternative to the V.A.’s traditional treatment process is the Wounded Warrior Project’s Combat Stress Recovery Program, which emphasizes the importance of interpersonal relationships, goal-setting and outdoor, rehabilitative retreats and seeks to avoid the stigma associated with traditional treatment.

What this generation of veterans needs from the V.A. is a recognition that when the color of life has faded to gray, you need to talk to someone about it today, not weeks or months from now. We need America to acknowledge what war does to the young men and women who fight it and to share the message that dragged me out of the darkness: It’s O.K. if you’re not O.K.

Mike Scotti, a former Marine, is the author of “The Blue Cascade: A Memoir of Life After War.”


We hear you Mike.   Our thoughts – and action – are with you and the thousands of brave heroes who deserve proper treatment from the V.A.


The Tragic Cost of PTSD: Anyone Listening?

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Daily, SFTT receives disturbing reports of the tragic consequences of post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) among our brave warriors returning from the front lines of Afghanistan and Iraq.   With a returning veteran committing suicide every 80 minutes, the ongoing tragedy has triggered the well-deserved attention of investigative journalists, but it still does not resonate in the corridors of power, much less public opinion. This is an unfolding tragedy of our own making and – make no mistake – we will be living with the terrible consequences of our indifference and apathy for many years to come.

In a solid piece of investigative reporting, Australian journalist Nick Lazaredes takes another look at PTSD to see if anything has changed since his initial report in 2007. Sadly, it hasn’t; and for thousands veterans, their families and loved ones, the nightmare of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq  continue to haunt our brave veterans.

SFTT reported earlier on some of the difficulties of treating veterans suffering from PTSD.  In fact, it would appear that many veterans abuse drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma of PTSD.   The V.A., which is already swamped by veterans suffering from PTSD, does not appear to have the necessary resources to cope with the problem other than to prescribe drugs.  While these drugs may treat some of the symptoms of PTSD, most medical practitioners believe  that it rarely deals with the underlying trauma.  In short, we run the risk of having veterans suffering from PTSD becoming addicted to the very drugs that are used in treating them.

In fact, OxyContin often prescribed by the V.A. to deal with the symptoms of PTSD  has proven to be addictive and of questionable value in restoring our veterans to health.  Now, it has been known for sometime that OxyContin – which is manufactured by Purdue Pharma –  is an addictive drug often referred to as “Hillbilly Heroin” among other names.

OxyContin and other drugs of questionable therapeutic value are being administered by physicians to “treat” the symptoms of PTSD among our veterans.  While these drugs may be expedient at masking the symptoms of PTSD,  are we creating an even larger problem to rehabilitate our warriors?   Most of us at SFTT are convinced that this is a serious and growing problem.    SFTT feels strongly that our military and civilian leaders need to get in front of issue before it engulfs our ability to provide the proper treatment and care for our brave veterans.

We would like to thank Nick Lazaredes and SBS Australia for keeping this tragic story alive.


Treating Warriors with PTSD

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Last weekend, I had the privilege of visiting Warriors Salute in Rochester, NY which has an innovative and expanding program to treat veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD.   I was fortunate to attend a training seminar hosted by Dr. Henry Grayson, Ph. D., for the clinical staff of Warriors Salute.  Dr. Grayson is the eminent psychologist who founded and directed the National Institute for the Psychotherapies in New York City and the author of Use Your Body to Heal Your Mind.    He is also a founding member of SFTT’s Medical Task Force to help address the large and growing problem of veterans suffering from PTSD.

While SFTT will report more on Dr. Grayson’s innovative approach to treating trauma, it is evident that there is no “magic bullet” to deal with the tragic consequences of veterans suffering from PTSD.  With at least 1 in 5 veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, the ongoing cost to our society is enormous.   Unfortunately, our military court system and the V.A. are structured in such a way that many veterans suffering from PTSD may be effectively deprived of proper treatment.

In a far-reaching report summarized by Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune, Major Evan R. Seamone, a member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, argues that “courts-martial function as problem-generating courts when they result in punitive discharges that preclude mentally ill offenders from obtaining Veterans Affairs treatment. Such practices create a class of individuals whose untreated conditions endanger public safety and the veteran as they grow worse over time.”     In fact, Major Seamone’s 212 page report for the Military Law Journal may be accessed by clicking on this hyperlink:   The Military Court system and PTSD.

Major Seamone’s observations are clearly “on-target” when it comes to dealing with veterans suffering from PTSD.  Many – if not most – veterans who suffer from PTSD also have a substance abuse problem.   In fact, one experienced addiction specialist suggested that “upwards of 80% of veterans suffering from PTSD also have an addiction problem.”   Unfortunately, the V.A. and our military courts tend to address PTSD and substance abuse as separate issues thereby depriving large numbers of veterans with the comprehensive treatment they deserve.   Sadly, substance abuse is a common opiate for those that suffer from combat-related trauma.

Since the mid-1990, the US judicial system has recognized the need to deal with drug-related criminal activity and have established some 2,600 Drug Treatment Courts in the United States.  Drug treatment courts are specialized community courts designed to help stop the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and related criminal activity. Non-violent offenders who have been charged with simple possession of drugs are given the option to receive treatment instead of a jail sentence.   These programs have proven to be remarkably successful for reducing the level of recidivism in our prison system.

Capitalizing on the infrastructure and success of the Drug Treatment Courts, some 50 or so Veteran Courts have sprung up across the United States to deal with veterans who have committed a crime while suffering from substance abuse.  In many cases, these troubled vets have the support of other Vets (often from the Vietnam era) who “mentor” their military colleagues through the rehabilitation process.   Judge John Schwartz,  one of the early pioneers in the Vet Court system, said that “We offer hope to these troubled veterans who have served our country so valiantly.  It’s simply common sense.”

When communities reach out to help these brave warriors, our society is enriched. From our perspective, it’s simply a matter of doing the right thing!  We owe these brave young men and women big time!

Richard W. May