Veteran fights for help as he copes with stress

Lawrence Journal World, KS

The war in Iraq was too much for Brandon Price to cope with. Now the former Army reservist is fighting new battles here at home.

The 21-year-old Lawrence man is trying to escape the clutches of alcohol and deal with what may be post-traumatic stress disorder. But despite an honorable discharge last year, he can’t immediately get disability benefits and medical help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

While in Iraq, Price was caught “huffing” from a compressed air container, which can cause someone to be affected by mind-altering chemicals. He didn’t finish his deployment.

And because of that, it could be at least a year before he can get any V.A. medical benefits by applying through organizations such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Price is in a catch-22 situation that shouldn’t be allowed to happen, said Kevin Lucey, a Massachusetts man who has become an advocate for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. His son, Jeffrey Lucey, committed suicide after serving as a Marine reservist in Iraq.

“If this country truly supports the troops, then there should not be any barrier to when they should be eligible to receive services,” Lucey said in an e-mail to the Journal-World.

In November, Lucey was contacted by Price’s stepmother, Leisa Price, after she read a story in the Journal-World about his visit to Lawrence. Lucey had discussed his son’s plight after watching a play at Kansas University about a soldier suffering from PTSD.

Leisa Price has spent the last several months writing letters, e-mails and making phone calls to anyone she can think of who might help her son. That includes V.A. officials, congressmen, President Bush and an aide to former presidential candidate John Kerry, Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

So far no one has been much help.

“Here we serve up our son on a platter and take great pride in the fact he’s serving our country and fighting in the war overseas,” Leisa Price said. “He had a problem. Because he didn’t fit into the criteria they set up, now he’s lost — totally abandoned. That just gets under my skin.”

Brandon Price said that he knew he made some mistakes and that he was trying to recover from them. But he can’t help feeling bitter.

“I used to think a great deal of the Army,” said Price, who served more than two years in the Army Reserve. “Now it makes me feel like they use you as long as they can, and then they throw you away.”

Casualty of war

Brandon Price was a member of the Army Reserve 917th Corps Support Group based in Belton, Mo. He was an E-4 when he was deployed to Iraq in October 2004. Among the duties he had were plotting convoy routes, going out on convoys, construction and various odd jobs.

He refused to talk publicly about what might have traumatized him in Iraq. He has told his parents that it involved a firefight or some type of battle. But the military hasn’t been able to confirm that such an incident occurred, Leisa Price said. Jeffrey Lucey, however, also described incidents in Iraq that the military couldn’t verify, his father has said.

In April 2005, Brandon Price returned to Lawrence on leave. That was when his parents realized their son had changed drastically. Brandon Price spent most of his time in a hotel room drinking and doing drugs, Leisa Price said. He missed his flight back to Iraq, and the military came looking for him. Army recruiters found him and this time made sure he got on a plane headed back to Iraq, the Prices recalled.

“That was the point when everything just started getting really crazy,” Leisa Price said.

By June 2005, Brandon Price had been sent back to the United States and was undergoing alcohol and drug rehabilitation at Fort Riley. He encountered more problems while he was there. He was still drinking and didn’t feel comfortable participating in group therapy. No individual therapy sessions were offered, and Brandon Price stopped going to the group sessions.

Brandon Price received an honorable medical discharge from the Army in September.

The bottom fell out for Brandon Price in November when he was in Lawrence living in his car and drinking heavily. He ended up at Lawrence Memorial Hospital for self-inflicted mutilation to his arm.

“He was a mess,” Leisa Price said. “I’d never seen him that way before. He was sobbing, hysterical and angry all at once.”

A hospital social worker sent information about Brandon Price to the V.A. medical centers in Leavenworth and Topeka. The word came back that because he didn’t finish his deployment in Iraq he was ineligible for V.A. benefits.

Outside help

Brandon Price hasn’t officially been diagnosed with PTSD. But his personal physician thinks the symptoms are there, according to the Prices.The doctor didn’t return phone messages Friday.Brandon Price is getting treatment at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, but it is for anger management.

In the meantime, he is jobless, and the Tricare medical insurance program he has from the military expires at the end of March. Leisa Price worries her son needs much more help than he’s getting — the kind of help only PTSD treatment at a V.A. hospital offers.

Jim Gleisberg, spokesman for Eastern Kansas Health Care, which manages the V.A. hospitals in Leavenworth and Topeka, said he couldn’t talk specifically about individuals receiving or seeking care at the hospitals. But he did confirm that a soldier who fails to complete a deployment because he was sent back to the United States because of problems such as alcoholism, bad morale or similar problems, isn’t immediately eligible for V.A. health programs. He said it would take action by Congress to change that.

Someone who spent time on active duty and received an honorable discharge can apply for V.A. compensation and pension from the American Legion or VFW, “but it could take up to a year, year and a half to get that done,” Gleisberg said.

Brandon Price now lives with his parents. He has done better about avoiding alcohol, he and his parents said. He plays with his younger brothers and sisters, and he helps his father coach a youth wrestling club called the Lawrence Coyotes. He had wrestled in high school.

“Brandon is kind of like the Pied Piper,” his father, Chris Price said. “Especially with the younger kids. They just kind of follow him around.”

Brandon also credits the support he’s received from a church group at Lawrence Free Methodist Church.

“Every day is a stressful one for me,” he said. “I just got to do what I can for myself.”

He is doing much better at staying sober, Leisa Price said.

“His commitment to his own sobriety seems to increase with every passing day,” she said. “It’s just too bad that the military couldn’t provide him with the help he needed, and that our government can’t provide him with continued help and support that he deserves.”

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