When 23-year-old Michael Torok returned home to DeKalb County in September 2004 after serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, he had more health issues than anyone had suspected.
Michael’s father, Roland, recalled recently that his son visited a veterans hospital Sept. 4 in Chicago.
“He had back pains and blood in his urine,” the elder Torok said.
Michael’s mother, Barbara, said the hospital did not screen Michael for post-traumatic stress disorder or for suicidal tendencies. The oversight, her husband speculates, might have been attributable to — but not ex-cused by — the fact that it was Labor Day weekend.
The next day, Michael left his Kingston home ostensibly to visit a friend in Shabbona in southern DeKalb County.
He never got there.
A 19-day search for Michael uncovered evidence that he had used a credit card at a Menards store in Cherry Valley and that a call to his cell phone had been picked up by a Verizon tower near Illinois 72.
On Sept. 24, Michael was found dead in his pickup truck in a rural area of Ogle County near Monroe Center, the victim of a self-inflicted stab wound. His parents were left to wonder whether his suicide might have been prevented by the kind of outreach and therapy options that have since been adopted at veterans hospitals.
At Hines VA Hospital near Chicago, all patients are now checked for PTSD, no matter how minor the other ailments for which they are seeking treatment.
“They should have been doing that a long time ago,” Roland said. “That should have been going on ever since the war (in Afghanistan and Iraq) started. They should have been doing it in Vietnam, too.”
Michael’s parents suspect that his death was at least partly because of his use of Lariam, an anti-malaria drug routinely given to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration warned that “Lariam may cause serious mental problems in some patients.” Traces of the drug were discovered in Michael’s system in a post-mortem examination of his body.
Nick Parnello, a Rockford veteran of the Vietnam War, agrees with the Toroks that the adoption of more aggressive strategies against PTSD by veterans hospitals is long overdue.
The 58-year-old Parnello, who was a door gunner on a Huey helicopter in Vietnam and now mentors fledgling inventors for a subsidiary of EIGERlab, said veterans hospitals too often failed to look for or effectively deal with the psychological problems plaguing troops returning from the conflict in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.
“The hospitals weren’t prepared for it,” Parnello said. “We had guys who were all screwed up because of what they had seen or what they had done. We had thousands of guys committing suicide.”
Parnello said VietNow, a national veterans organization he co-founded, began organizing informal discussions among combat veterans about 25 years ago.
“The worst cases,” he said, “usually were with guys who wanted to bury their pain. It was just too much for them to deal with. But when we got them talking and listening with their brother vets, they usually were able to begin to heal.”
He recalled the case of one vet who was ashamed for years afterward for having been frozen with fear in a combat situation.
“His outfit was under fire, and he just laid there with his machine gun and didn’t move,” said Parnello. “He felt so guilty about the fact that he had been afraid. But when he talked to other vets in one of our groups, he got better.”
Parnello said some of the people coming home from military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing psychological problems unique to the conflicts in which they’ve participated.
“Every war is different,” he said, “and the problems the veterans face are different.”
Staff writer Pat Cunningham can be reached at 815-987-1376 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.