Editorial Column: Their Broken Spirits Deserve Better

Chicago Tribune

May 26, 2008 – As my family was preparing for our 2005 Thanksgiving meal, my son Timothy was lying on the floor of my office, slowly bleeding to death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His war was over, his demons gone. Tim was laid to rest in a combination military-firefighter funeral that was a tribute to the man he was.

Tim was the life of a party, a happy-go-lucky young man who joined the National Guard in 2003 to earn money for college and to get a little structure in his life.

On March 19, 2005, when Spec. Timothy Noble Bowman got off the bus with the other Illinois National Guard soldiers of Foxtrot 202 who were returning from Iraq, he was a different man. He had a glaze in his eyes and a 1,000-yard stare, always looking for an insurgent.

Family members of F202 were given a 10-minute briefing on post-traumatic stress disorder before the soldiers returned. The soldiers were given even less.

Our boys had been shot up, blown up by improvised explosive devices, extinguished fires on soldiers so the soldiers’ parents would have something to bury, and extinguished fires to save lives.

Our National Guardsmen from F202 were not out filling sandbags in Iraq. Their tour took them directly into combat, including four months on “the most dangerous road in the world,” the highway from the airport to the Green Zone in Baghdad, where Tim was a top gunner in a Humvee.

When CBS News broke the story about 120 veterans committing suicide each week in 2005, the Department of Veterans Affairs took the approach of criticizing the way the numbers were created instead of embracing the information and using it to help increase mental health care within its system. CBS did what no government agency would do; it tabulated the suicide numbers of veterans to shed light on this hidden epidemic.

The VA’s mental health system is broken in function and understaffed in operation. There are many cases of soldiers who go to the VA for help and are turned away or misdiagnosed and then lose their battle with their demons.

Those soldiers, as well as my son, can never be brought back. No one can change that fact. But we can change the system so this trend can be slowed down dramatically or even stopped. Timothy was one of thousands of veterans whom this country has lost to suicide. Every day I see the pain and grief that families go through in trying to deal with their loss. The veterans’ ravished and broken spirits are passed on to their families as they try to understand what happened.

I now suffer from the same mental illnesses that claimed my son’s life—depression and PTSD—because of the images and sounds of finding him and seeing his life fade away.

The suicide rate among veterans should be classified as an epidemic that needs immediate and drastic attention. I challenge this nation to do for American soldiers what they did for this country. Take care of them. Our son, Spec. Timothy Noble Bowman, was not counted in any VA statistics. He had not made it into the VA system because of the stigma of reporting mental problems. The only statistical study that he was counted in was the CBS study. And there are many more like him. The unknown fallen.

Our veterans’ broken spirits and minds can no longer be ignored. They deserve better.

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