Two disturbing stories focus attention on plight of military veterans

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Two disturbing stories were recently published by the New York Times which draw attention to the tragic plight of military veterans whose lives and those of loved ones have been severely affected by combat stress disorders, commonly referred to as PTSD.    While one hopes and prays that our brave heroes will soon return home from deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is almost certain that – left untreated – the stress of combat will eventually manifest itself in ways that are harmful to our veterans, their loved ones and our communities.  Can we allow that to happen?  What should be done to make sure our veterans receive prompt and adequate treatment for PTSD?

The first article is by Lawrence Downes entitled “The V.A. Tries to Get Beyond Its Culture of No” which chronicles efforts a “small wing” of a Veteran’s Administration hospital inCanandaigua, N.Y. to help military veterans in crisis.  At this hospital, a staff of about 120 runs a national phone and Internet chat service for veterans in crisis.

The pleas for help come from everywhere.  According to the article, “one Vietnam veteran has struggled with survivor’s guilt for 43 years. Another has lost his job and his marriage, and agrees to try V.A.-sponsored therapy, ‘if it will stop these dreams.’”  The counselors, who field these calls, “aren’t therapists or case managers; they just tell people where and how to get care and then follow up if they can. They can’t always know if a person really is in crisis or is even a veteran.”

Mr. Downes claims that “there are now two million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a small but growing portion of the total veteran population of 23 million. Not all saw combat; not all bear physical or psychological scars. Those who do pose a challenge this nation is only beginning to confront.”  Indeed, many assume that wars end when a truce is declared.  Unfortunately, the effects of these conflicts will be with many of our veterans for years.

It would appear that the Veterans Administration is totally unprepared or, perhaps, overwehlmed by the needs of our veterans.  The article cites a federal court who recently “blisteringly criticized the V.A. for ‘unchecked incompetence’ in failing to provide mental health care to veterans. The judges cited backlogs of hundreds of thousands of benefits claims and the lack of suicide-prevention experts in hundreds of outpatient clinics. Veterans can wait months for treatment and years to have their disability claims processed.”

The second story is from Erica Goode entitled “Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran,” chronicles the heart-breaking story of 36-year old veteran Staff Sgt. Brad Eifert who apparently tried to commit suicide by firing on police officers.  A compassionate judge, tireless lawyer and inspired prosecutor agreed that untreated combat stress disorder or PTSD had probaly triggered this hostile and dangerous behavior.   I encourage SFTT readers to read  Erica Goode’s excellent article since only a few of the more relevant points are highlighted since it involves great cooperation from a number of people to give Brad Eifert a “fighting chance.”

According to the article, “In daring the police to kill him, Mr. Eifert, who had served in Iraq and was working as an Army recruiter, joined an increasing number of deployed veterans who, after returning home, plunge into a downward spiral, propelled by post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems.   Mr. Eifert’s behavior is not uncommon with others who suffer from PTSD and “their descent is chronicled in suicide attempts or destructive actions brings them into conflict with the law — drunken driving, bar fights, domestic violence and, in extreme instances, armed confrontations with the police of the kind that are known as ‘suicide by cop.’”

While Mr.Eifert could have ended up in a jail with a long prison term or worse, an enlightened judicial process and law enforcement experts seemed to agree that  “when a veteran’s criminal actions appear to stem from the stresses of war, a better solution than traditional prosecution and punishment is called for. The society that trained them and sent them into harm’s way, they say, bears some responsibility for their rehabilitation. And they point to other exceptions in the legal system like diversion programs for drug offenders and the mentally ill.”

“’I don’t interpret it as excusing behavior, but as addressing what the behavior is,’ said Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. of Buffalo City Court, who founded the first special court for veterans there in 2008. It can provide an alternative to punishment, mandating treatment and close supervision and holding them to strict requirements.’The benefit is, you increase public safety, you don’t have a person reoffending and, hopefully, that person can become functioning and not suffer the invisible wounds of war,’ Judge Russell said.”

Another person who took a strong interest in Mr. Eifer’s situation was Judge Jordon, the son of a World War II pilot, who is passionate about veterans’ issues, an ardent fan of “Achilles in Vietnam,” Jonathan Shay’s book on combat trauma. After hearing about the veteran’s court in Buffalo, he started a similar one in East Lansing. The court, which meets twice a month, not only gets veterans into treatment, it also provides them a mentor who is also a military veteran. The veterans have a chance to avoid jail by meeting a set of rigorous criteria.

Mr. Eifert’s case, Judge Jordon said, was “at the core of anyone’s concept of a treatment court.”

On Aug. 2, Mr. Eifert, having pleaded guilty to a single charge of carrying a weapon with unlawful intent, a felony, will officially enter the veterans court program. He separated from the Army on June 9. Twelve to 18 months from now, if he adheres to the strict regimen of treatment through the Veterans Affairs hospital in Battle Creek and supervision set by the court, the charge could be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor.

Brad Eifert  “is at home now, with his wife and stepchildren, slowly learning to cope more constructively with his problems. He has abstained from drinking since his arrest — he wears a monitor on his ankle that records any alcohol he consumes. He is working part time at a family farm. He has ups and downs, but on most days, he sees some possibility of a future.”  “’We’re a long way from this being over,’ said Sgt. Maj. David Dunckel, the mentor assigned to Mr. Eifert by the veteran’s court, who keeps a close eye on him. ‘There is some resolution to his legal problems, but the demons that haunt him are still pretty deeply embedded.’”

“Still, Sergeant Major Dunckel said, ‘I’ll put my money on Brad getting through this O.K.’”

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