For One Couple, Struggle to Find Better Care Led to Relocation

Boston Globe

MONTAGUE — The morning sun glinted off the silver crucifix dangling from the rearview window of Anna Mohan’s 1992 Toyota as it started with a rough bang on a cold late-winter day.

She was on the road. Again.

As Mohan has struggled, traveling far and wide to find help for husband, Peter, a soldier wounded in Iraq, her faith and her faithful old car have been about all she could rely on.

Certainly, for the longest time, she couldn’t rely on the VA.

The couple’s journey together has taken them from the cornfields of rural North Carolina to the hill towns of Western Massachusetts, where Peter Mohan, 27, finally got the care he needed. His was a classic case of a veteran who found himself desperate for VA services, but living far from a VA healthcare center and feeling lost in the agency’s bureaucratic thicket.

Hers was also a common story — of the incredible burdens that often settle on a wounded veteran’s spouse or family. It is no stretch to say that Anna Mohan’s perseverance may have saved her husband’s life.

She and her husband were living North Carolina in 2004 when he deployed as a specialist with the Army National Guard to Iraq. After he returned a year later, she got a job as a teacher in Engelhard, a small town in North Carolina.

But while she away during the day at work, Peter was collapsing into mental illness, anger, self-destructive behavior, and hard drinking. He was consumed by memories of war — the fellow soldiers he saw killed and civilians he saw caught up in intense fighting near Baqubah. He became suicidal and harbored violent fantasies.

Sometimes, he said, he would roar through town on his motorcycle toting a loaded gun and a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was hoping for a confrontation with police that would “get that feeling again” of combat.

“I wanted to get in a fight I knew I’d lose. I wanted to take my life that way,” he said.

At the VA medical center in Durham — a four-hour drive from Engelhard — Peter was prescribed a raft of antianxiety drugs and sleeping pills, but no counseling. No one mentioned how dangerous it could be to take the pills after consuming alcohol. Anna Mohan was told it would be a four month wait to get an appointment for her husband to be assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder, and after that, a three-month wait for counseling.

She knew he couldn’t wait that long.

“I was really scared,” she said. “You feel like there is no one there. The VA, from my experience, is just not prepared for these veterans coming home with these problems. It’s up to the wives and the families. And for those who don’t have that support, I just don’t know what happens to them.”

She quit her job, knowing that the fight to save her husband would be full-time task. Bills piled up. Eventually they had to put their house on the market. “Thing fell apart really fast,” she said.

And Peter was unraveling even faster. In December 2006, Anna gave up on getting him the care he needed in North Carolina. She moved them to Montague, Mass., where her parents live and where — more importantly — they would be close to Northampton, home to one of only five in patient PTSD programs in the country.

Within weeks, Peter was diagnosed with “severe chronic PTSD” and told he was next in line for the Northampton program. That meant another delay. Anna insisted that he needed immediate help, and the center acquiesced, placing him in a 3 1/2-week program in late February.

For the Mohans, the contrast between the response in Northampton and what they encountered in North Carolina is a dramatic example of something veterans’ advocates complain of — the inconsistent quality of care at VA facilities.

Still, they have found a vein of hope.

“I am nervous because I don’t know what things are going to be like, and what the healing process is going to be like,” Anna said, as she set off in her Toyota to pick up Peter at the hospital. “But I am excited because I am getting my husband back.”

For his part, Peter, a tall, solidly built man, jokes that it will take a while to adapt to life “behind the tofu curtain” in New England, a region that had seemed foreign to one with a staunchly military outlook. But, turning serious, he is grateful.

“There’s not a lot of NASCAR in Montague, but I’ve got to tell you for all the smack the right talks about the left, this place full of liberals has offered more support and better services than the red state of North Carolina,” he said.

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