Editorial Column – Veterans’ Suicides – The War Casualties You Aren’t Hearing About

Huffington Post

May 21, 2007 

Jeffrey Lucey (1981-2004)
Joshua Omvig (1983-2005)
Jonathan Schulze (1981-2007)

Like countless others, each of these young men served honorably in Iraq, but came home unable to cope with their memories of combat. Each one sought help from the military or from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But in each case, the hospital was overbooked, the counselors didn’t listen, or the bureaucracy moved too slowly.

Only months after their return from war, each of these young heroes committed suicide.

How did this happen? Simply because the veterans’ support system is overwhelmed. Over 50,000 Iraq veterans have already been diagnosed with PTSD. Tens of thousands are waiting for VA appointments. One-third of Vet Centers (walk-in counseling clinics for combat veterans and their families) lack adequate counseling staff. Even a VA official has admitted that waiting lists render mental health and substance abuse care “virtually inaccessible.”

I’d like to share the story of a friend of mine that experienced the failings of the current system first-hand. Drew Brown served as a Sergeant First Class training Iraq’s soldiers in Fallujah, Taji, Baghdad and Baquba. Like Joshua Omvig, Jeffrey Lucy, and Jonathan Schulze, Drew struggled to readjust when he came home and he sought help.

Now, Drew has bravely offered to share his story in the hopes of helping other Iraq veterans hold on long enough to get the care they need — and of spurring action in Washington to make sure no more Iraq veterans fall through the cracks:

“One night, while my wife slept only feet from me, I came to the conclusion that she would not be able to stop me if I chose to end my life. With the speed and accuracy of my years handling weapons, I could easily load a magazine, chamber a round, remove the safety and squeeze the trigger before she even got out of bed. I could taste the Hoppe’s #9, feel the front sight post as it pressed against the roof of my mouth.

For months I tried to schedule an appointment with the VA. I was told I would need to schedule an appointment three weeks out, at a hospital that is an hours’ drive away. The appointment would only be scheduled between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday. Even assuming I would walk right in and be seen, it would take me an hour to get there, an hour there, then an hour back to work. Who can blow half a day on an hour-long appointment? I can’t.

One issue I was particularly perturbed about was the Post Deployment Health Readiness Assessment (PDHRA). This was the Army’s paper trail, so the top brass could say, “Look! We’re accomplishing something!” Actually, they were only tracking, not treating. I filled out the form five times from October 2005 to December 2006. In all five instances, I asked for help from a mental health professional. In all five instances, I received no help and no follow-up calls.

In late February 2007, I was so incensed that the PDHRA was being bandied about by Generals as proof that they were tracking troops’ mental health problems, that I called the civilian company that is supposed to handle the forms. Eventually, a program manager told me my case was closed.

My case was closed? I was incredulous. I made him read the part on the copies of the forms where I asked for contact from a mental health professional, which he did. Then I asked him to show me the record of said professional contacting me, which he could not do. He asked me to again fill out the form and said he would reopen my case. I did what was asked dutifully, and waited.

Two weeks later, the PDHRA folks finally called me back. It only took 16 months.

I held nothing back from them and told them what was weighing on my mind. I had nothing to lose. In a span of minutes, I was on the phone with a counselor, then social worker from the local VA hospital. They took no chances and scheduled appointments as quickly as possible, and at an outpatient clinic that was minutes from my house.

That’s the good news. The bad news is my first appointment was 2 weeks later. There are those that might not have lasted that long…”

Thankfully, help came in time for Drew. But it took a full sixteen months for the military and veterans affairs’ systems to respond to his repeated requests for counseling. During that time, Drew was suffering from depression, anger, and flashbacks.

You can take action to help veterans like Drew get the help they need. Last week, IAVA officially endorsed legislation introduced by Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, calling for the creation of a national veteran’s suicide prevention hotline. The bill is making its way through the House, and we will be pushing to get it passed. And you can help. Contact your elected officials and urge them to support this bill. This is just one step of many that will be necessary to ensure that all veterans get the care and treatment they deserve — whether their wounds are hidden or not.

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