June 2, 2008 – Monday’s Memorial Day celebration reminded us of the supreme sacrifice of this country’s fallen heroes killed in war. It is because of them that we are insured our many freedoms and our way of life.
Given the nature of the holiday and what it symbolizes, one would think that those who provide medical care for surviving veterans would treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.
Unfortunately, there are those who choose to ignore the military service offered by millions and decide that their sacrifice is of little consequence and can be overlooked. These misguided individuals make decisions that do not reflect the national conscience of caring for the nation’s veterans and negatively impact the veterans’ ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle, both mentally and physically.
It was recently reported that Norma Perez, a physician and team leader in charge of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) program at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center in Temple, has done unbelievable damage to that program and the many area veterans who have sought help there.
In a March 20 e-mail, Perez told her staff members, mental health specialists and counselors, to stop diagnosing PTSD because so many veterans were seeking government disability payments for the condition. Her e-mail states, “Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I’d like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out.” Perez suggested diagnosing the veteran with an “adjustment disorder,” which is a less severe reaction to PTSD and would result in a lesser disability benefit payment to the veteran.
Only one part of Perez’s e-mail was truthful. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq there has been a significant increase in applications for disability benefits regarding PTSD.
According to independent veterans organizations that have tracked the increasing activity in PTSD applications by Vietnam veterans, there is solid evidence that the numbers have increased dramatically. In 1997 there were approximately 90,000 veterans with PTSD in VA mental health programs. By 2005, there were close to 200,000 and the numbers were growing.
There are several reasons for this spike in activity. First, the war in Iraq resurrects memories that have been dormant for decades. As a result, many Vietnam veterans refrain from watching the nightly news showing service men and women in the midst of battle because that activity alone, even though on television, stirs up recurring fears and anxiety.
Another significant factor causing that increase is due to Vietnam veterans coming into an age where there is more time available to think and remember days gone by. Vietnam vets have now raised their children, are on their own or living far from their families with no one to talk to. The days of scurrying around to PTO meetings, baseball practice, band practice, helping with homework and spending time with their children is gone forever. The Vietnam vet is thus having to cope with more free time, allowing long suppressed thoughts and images of what was done and endured during that period of their lives to come roaring back causing pain and suffering.
PTSD is an invisible condition known only to those who must deal with it. Those who suffer from this disorder may experience debilitating insomnia, anxiety, extreme reactions to loud sounds, flashbacks, wild and tortuous dreams of past combat experiences, problems concentrating, forgetfulness and impatience with others, alcohol and drug dependencies. And those are the less terrifying symptoms. Vets with PTSD have been known to act out previous combat situations and commit horrible, violent crimes against their families and others. Many commit suicide.
I called U.S. Representative John Carter to voice my concern and outrage about Perez’s e-mail. I provided my name, address and several phone numbers. Carter has not returned the call.
When questioned about this incident, Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake said Perez’s e-mail was “inappropriate” and did not reflect the concern and level of medical attention given veterans. He added that Perez had been “counseled” but that she remains in her job. There is no indication of further investigation into the matter by VA.
However, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama fired off a strong letter to Secretary James Peake requesting an explanation of Perez’s e-mail and requesting an investigation into whether Perez’s e-mail is or has been VA policy.
Perez’s order to subordinates is unconscionable, mean-spirited and reflects badly on her views of those who served in the military. Remorse, an apology and counseling is not enough. Perez must go and should have her medical license revoked!
The families of our fallen veterans must never forget our gratitude for their sacrifice. They are our heroes as well.
As for Perez, I offer her a poppy, a symbol of the sacrifice celebrated on Memorial Day, as a grim reminder of how shallow and intolerant her understanding is of those who have served this country.