Quote from Paul Sullivan at VCS: “This administration’s continual failure to have a plan for 1.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans smacks as the ultimate betrayal of our fighting men and women.” View 25-minute news broadcast at this link: http://news.sbs.com.au/dateline/forgotten_soldiers_134093
Investigative journalist Nick Lazaredes looks at the hidden cost of America’s war on terror. Tens of thousands of US soldiers are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. They say they’ve been abandoned by the Bush Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, claiming that government officials are actively trying to cover up the extent of America’s traumatised soldiers. For many vets, this means not enough help is being offered and their lives are plagued by anxiety and mental health issues. But for some, the results are even more tragic. Dateline video journalist Nick Lazaredes meets the widow of an Afghanistan veteran who was severely depressed by his recall to fight in Iraq. He was killed in a police shootout on Christmas Day, his death dubbed ‘police-assisted suicide’. As Dateline reveals, his story is not an isolated one.
This week the Australian Army began its inquiry into the suicide of Australian combat veteran Captain Andrew Paljakka, who hanged himself in a Sydney hotel room back in February. He was the second reported suicide of an Australian veteran of the Afghan conflict. But in the US, there are signs that the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan have created an epidemic among it’s returning veterans, of homelessness, substance abuse and suicide. Dateline’s Nick Lazaredes reports the evidence is that the Bush Administration has been disguising the real magnitude of the problem.
REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes
MURIEL DEAN, VETERAN’S WIFE: This wall is the wall of our engagement photos. This here, this is us on our first Halloween together, we were mummies.
For a short time after Jamie Dean came back from active service in Afghanistan, life appeared to be good. Back home in southern Maryland, he’d been swept up in a whirlwind romance which resulted in marriage. But Jamie Dean was a troubled man.
MURIEL DEAN: These are his medals.
Plagued by nightmares, the 29-year-old former army sergeant felt tormented by the memories of his tour of duty.
MURIEL DEAN: Jamie would often say anyway “You don’t understand, nobody understands unless they’ve been there, you just don’t understand.” And you’re right, and I would tell him “You’re right, I don’t understand, but you need to talk about it if it’s bothering you.”
Encouraged to seek help by his wife, Muriel, Jamie Dean went to a local veterans’ affairs clinic. He had one appointment with a psychiatrist at the clinic and was quickly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD. He started receiving a regimen of anti-depressants and sleeping pills through the post but, according to his wife, Jamie’s world completely fell apart when he received fresh call-up orders this time to Iraq.
MURIEL DEAN: His whole mood changed. He started withdrawing from me, drinking a lot more, he wasn’t taking his medicine after that. The sweats and the nightmares came back that he was having before and he would often tell me about his nightmares, that he was having nightmares that he was going to be killed over there. He should have never been recalled. And I don’t… he’d be here today if he wasn’t recalled. I know he would. It wouldn’t have sent him over the edge the way that it did.
It was Christmas day last year that Jamie finally snapped, firing a shotgun into the paddock at his father’s empty farmhouse.
JAMIE DEAN, MARYLAND POLICE TAPE: I done my time in the military, now I gotta go back.
POLICE NEGOTIATOR: They’re getting ready to call you back, you think?
JAMIE DEAN: They already called me back. And I lost all my friends.
POLICE NEGOTIATOR: You lost all your friends because you were overseas?
JAMIE DEAN: Yes. But then you come back and nobody respects that.
POLICE NEGOTIATOR: Nobody?
The police soon arrived and although they knew about Jamie’s diagnosis of PTSD, they responded aggressively.
JAMIE DEAN: Why are there people surrounding me? I want them to get the hell away from the back of the house.
POLICE NEGOTIATOR: They’re backing off. I told them to back off, I’m not lying to you.
JAMIE DEAN: I’ve got lights and everything and you know what? It’s about to get ugly. You have no idea what the fuck I’m about to do.
These photos show the damage after police fired 85 tear gas canisters into the building. Realising that the police were ignoring her husband’s fragile condition, Muriel Dean feared the worst.
MURIEL DEAN: And then I went to the police officer standing there, I said “You need to tell me what just happened.” Because I just started bawling, I felt something, I got goose bumps, and it wasn’t a good feeling. And, um, they called him back on the cell phone as I was sitting a little ways away and you heard the guy on the other line say “He’s deceased, but don’t tell the family.” And I don’t remember much after that.
Jamie Dean was shot dead by a police sniper.
MURIEL DEAN: I’m ashamed, you know, because the government needs to treat our veterans and our soldiers and our military a lot better than they do.
REPORTER: But the killing of Jamie Dean was by no means an isolated incident. In fact, throughout the United States, several veterans have died as a result of what’s been dubbed as “police-assisted suicide”. But what’s really alarming are the rates of suicide overall. The latest research indicating that male veterans are killing themselves at a rate four times greater than the general population. When you add to that the unprecedented numbers of homeless veterans, as well as those abusing alcohol and drugs, then it’s clear that America is facing an epidemic of mental health disorders.
KEVIN LUCEY: I was furious. On June 5, when our government turned their back to our son, I would never, I would never go back and I would never contact the VA. I wouldn’t do anything, because I knew by that time that they weren’t there to help us.
In his house in rural Massachusetts, Kevin Lucey has left untouched the bedroom of his only son Jeffrey.
KEVIN LUCEY, VETERAN’S FATHER: Well, the breath marks, they’re right here, and those have been there since the day Jeff died. We create this in our own minds but sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t looking out there for the last time, you know… it’s hard, very difficult.
This is where Jeffrey Lucey lived with his family when he returned from service as a convoy driver in Iraq. Already a veteran at 23, the trauma that followed him home from the war would soon end in tragedy and leave his family shattered.
JOYCE LUCEY, VETERAN’S MOTHER: They take them, they emotionally destroy them, and then they throw them back into society and say “OK, you’re on your own.” And, you know, whether they mean that or not, there is no… there was no outreach to Jeffrey.
When Jeffrey Lucey returned to civilian life, he was depressed and morbid. He told his sister he was a murderer and felt guilty about what he had done in Iraq. For months after he returned, he was vomiting on a daily basis and had frequent nightmares and psychological disturbances.
KEVIN LUCEY: Jeff had most of the symptoms that you would hear about. He had hallucinations, visual, audio, tactile. I mean, he felt people touching him, he could hear camel spiders in his room, to the point that he even had a flash light to look for the camel spiders. And the camel spiders, of course, are unique to Iraq. And…
JOYCE LUCEY: Jeff was very scared of spiders.
KEVIN LUCEY: Ever since a little boy. So finally, um, Jeff said that he needed help.
Jeffrey had already started expressing suicidal thoughts to his sister, and the family forced him into a clinic run by the Department of Veterans Affairs known as the VA. In hospital, he once again started talking about suicide.
JOYCE LUCEY: Jeffrey entered on May 28, he was released on June 1 after having told them that he had three ways to harm himself, he had a method on top of the whole plan.
REPORTER: He told the VA this?
JOYCE LUCEY: Yes.
KEVIN LUCEY: We have the records. It’s right in there on the records.
JOYCE LUCEY: He was admitted on a Friday by one psychiatrist, discharged on a Tuesday by another psychiatrist after a discharge interview.
Back at home, Jeffrey’s mental state deteriorated. His family were distraught when he overdosed on his medication and crashed the family car, but the VA refused to readmit him.
JOYCE LUCEY: And my daughter talked to somebody and said, “You know, he’s really bad.” And said, “I think my brother might be gone by this time next month if somebody doesn’t help him.” And she got the person on the phone concurred with her and said, “You might be right.”
As Jeffrey fell apart, so too did the Lucey family. They tried desperately to protect their son, emptying the house of anything he could use to harm himself. But just weeks later, his father Kevin returned home from work to make a shocking discovery.
KEVIN LUCEY: I walked downstairs and when I got there I saw that there was blood on his platoon picture and then I happened to see Jeff and I thought he was standing at first, but Jeff was hanging from the garden hose. The hose that he had told the psychiatrist he had purchased but we didn’t know about it. Um, that was the only thing we didn’t clear out of the house. And I went running over there and I put him in my lap, I was trying to push him up so I could take the hose from around his neck and I keep telling people this, but for the first time in months he really looked peaceful. He really did.
More than three years on, his mother Joyce struggles with the enormity of her loss.
JOYCE LUCEY: I remember saying to somebody, “What’s the date today? I want to remember the date my son died.” You realise something had happened, but there was his bed and there was his TV, and you’re thinking “Where is he?” You know, it was just insane. And I’m sorry. But anyway.
PAUL SULLIVAN, SPOKESMAN, VETERANS FOR COMMON SENSE: The Lucey family tragedy, and it’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, is indicative of what’s going on among our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
As spokesman for the lobby group Veterans for Commonsense, Paul Sullivan believes the government is badly failing its former soldiers.
PAUL SULLIVAN: There are multiple epidemics going on in the United States among our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. There’s an epidemic of suicides. It’s clearly stated by the military, record number of suicides this year. We have an epidemic of homelessness. News reports are coming out that as many as 2,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans already homeless from this war. Every American, everyone, should be highly alarmed that regardless of your position on the war, this administration is shamefully, shamefully betraying our veterans.
Sullivan certainly knows about the horrors of war as well as the inside running of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He served as a cavalry scout in the first Gulf War and later worked as a senior manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VA. He believes the VA’s failings are no accident.
PAUL SULLIVAN: While I was working at VA, political appointees who are the top-level employees appointed by President Bush personally, were trying to undermine and destroy the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were coming up with policies to block veterans with PTSD from getting disability benefits and health care.
Sullivan claims these Bush appointees actively attempted to cover up the true scale of the PTSD problem.
PAUL SULLIVAN: In 2005 I was looking at the data as part of my job and seeing that there was a tidal wave of disability claims for mental health problems among returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. When I briefed the political appointees about this, one political appointee told me to “Make the numbers lower.” She said, “God doesn’t like ugly, you need to make the numbers lower.”
According to Sullivan, the political interference extended to misleading the US Congress, but the VA says the political winds are blowing in its favour.
DR IRA KATZ, DEPARTMENT OF VETERAN AFFAIRS: Well, political issues right now are recognising the absolute central importance of caring for veterans, is one of the most important issues in our country. The VA is now well funded. We must be the best-funded health care system in America.
Dr Ira Katz is the deputy director of the VA’s mental health division. He believes there are no problems with the treatment of returning vets.
REPORTER: Anecdotally, there appears to be a problem with the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. How do you perceive the issue?
DR IRA KATZ: VA is very actively involved in recognising and treating PTSD and other mental health conditions. Our treatment follows the most current evidence, and our treatment works.
Nearly 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have some form of mental health condition. Their impact on the government’s health care system will be enormous. But when it comes to forward estimates for the real cost of looking after its traumatised vets, the VA is hard to pin down.
DR IRA KATZ: Yeah, costs are difficult because it’s a fuzzy boundary about how to calculate the costs. Are we just interested in the costs of therapy? What about the stress on the family? What about lost productivity at work? It’s hard to draw a line about how best to count it.
While the VA seems coy about stating the exact cost of disabled veterans to the US Government, Paul Sullivan’s group assisted a Harvard University study to discover just that by securing secret VA statistics under freedom of information laws.
PAUL SULLIVAN: As a result of their study, Harvard University was able to show that the Department of Veterans Affairs will spend between $350 billion and $700 billion over the next 40 years for health care and for disability payments for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
STEVE EDWARDS, IRAQ VETERAN: Our mission in our area was to conduct combat patrols outside of the base and to secure the base. So we had the stress of having to go outside the base. We had to worry about IEDs, small arms fire, RPGs, things like that so we also had the stress of having to directly engage insurgents.
41-year-old Steve Edwards served in Iraq. He remains traumatised by the loss of colleagues and the way in which he handled it.
STEVE EDWARDS: There were days when it just like, you know, “Let’s just wipe out this whole fucking village, fuck all these people.” And then I think about it and it’s like, “God, what the hell did I say that for, I didn’t mean that.”
Steve is one of the lucky ones. He was diagnosed with PTSD and is receiving treatment from a Veterans Affairs clinic but he still thinks the system is failing his army buddies.
STEVE EDWARDS: There’s so many hoops and red tape to deal with that people get fed up and just walk away from it and it shouldn’t be that way.
Even after treatment, Steve’s mindset provides an insight into why so many young men and women are returning home as changed and deeply disturbed individuals.
STEVE EDWARDS: It altered me. I feel it killed something inside of me and at the same time awoken something in me that… was dark, that I didn’t want to get out, especially around my wife or daughter. And it’s that dark side that… where does it come from? I mean, obviously it’s in all of us, I mean, it just it took going to Iraq or going into a situation like that to bring it out and now that it’s out, you can’t put the cork back on the bottle, you know. You can’t put it away.
Upset that most of his friends haven’t been able to access care or benefits, Steve decided to join a lawsuit with other veterans against the VA.
STEVE EDWARDS: We’re just really trying to get the VA to see that there’s a problem with their system. We’re not saying that the VA’s bad, we’re not saying that the people working at the VA are bad, we’re not even looking for money. We’re just trying to say, “Look, your system is a good system, it’s a good idea, but you really need to revamp it.”
The VA has already attempted some revamping of its own. Many veterans were angered it tried to re-open 72,000 PTSD claims it had already approved despite having a backlog of 600,000 disability claims. When that was overturned by Congress, the VA asked the nation’s top medical body to re-define PTSD.
DR IRA KATZ: VA did this to de-stigmatise this illness, to make the case that mental health illnesses are real illnesses and to address criticism from different quarters that these weren’t real conditions. They are.
But veterans groups claim it was a cynical attempt to reduce claimants by narrowing the definition of PTSD. That attempt was rejected by the experts.
GORDON ERSPAMER, LAWYER: Think about someone with a traumatic brain injury that comes back, had a bomb go off near his head and the microscopic bleeding inside the brain. They’re zombies, they come back as zombies. Someone is going to have to take care of them the rest of their lives. Who is going to take care of these people? It’s the VA’s job to take care of these people and they’re just not doing it, they’re just not doing it.
Gordon Erspamer is one of the lawyers spearheading the unique lawsuit that Steve Edwards and other veterans and their families have taken out against the VA. He says the VA’s own predictions for disability claims show a burgeoning problem.
GORDON ERSPAMER: You can see, they’ve gone from about 335,000 in 2002 to a projected 950,000 by 2008, that’s just in a very short period of time.
The lawsuit that Erspamer has lodged against the VA is aimed at forcing the department to radically overhaul its entire system. It’s a move Erspamer believes is essential given the delays faced by those seeking to access care.
GORDON ERSPAMER: Our projection is based upon actual data, is that it takes 12 to 15 years for a PTSD claim to work its way through the entire system, assuming initial denial. 12 to 15 years. Well, what happens? Most of these guys die or they give up somewhere along the line. You can’t keep going that long.
According to Gordon Erspamer, the US military has discharged tens of thousands of veterans on the basis of what they claim were pre-existing personality disorders. Those vets will generally get no benefits at all.
GORDON ERSPAMER: They’re doing it just to get rid of people, to save money, so they don’t have to pay them disability benefits and they don’t have to pay them for the medical care. There’s been, through June, over 22,000 of those from Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, we’re not talking about small numbers. 22,000 people, this is another budgetary thing. Part of our case deals with that issue and what we’re asking the court to do is to tell the VA “Look, you can’t rely on any of these personality disorder discharges. You’ve got to start from fresh with this veteran and decide do they have PTSD. If they do, is it service-connected, and give them benefits and ignore what the military did to them, because it’s so unreliable.”
At the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC, people still flock to pay tribute to soldiers killed in a war most Americans would rather forget. The government’s failure to look after its Vietnam veterans means that today, almost 200,000 of them are still homeless and needing treatment. They’re now set to be joined by a new generation.
PAUL SULLIVAN: This administration’s continual failure to have a plan for 1.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans smacks as the ultimate betrayal of our fighting men and women. Bush, who failed to serve in the active duty military when he was called during the Vietnam War, is now sticking the knife in the back of our veterans. He ought to be ashamed.
JOYCE LUCEY: This whole thing has been ill-planned and managed from the very beginning, and that follows through when they returned home. They had their mission, what they wanted to accomplish, and I don’t think they were even going in the direction of what happens to these young men and women when they return home. That wasn’t even a thought, I really don’t believe that. And that’s the, um, the tragedy of this whole mess.