Flap Over Purple Heart is ‘Tip of Iceburg’ Veterans Say

The Mountain Enterprise

January 16, 2009 – The Kern County Veterans Service Department began regular monthly visits here this week to assist mountain veterans to obtain and update their benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but a new flap in Washington, D.C. reminded local vets of the hurdles they face.

The Pentagon made a decision in November not to grant the Purple Heart to those suffering from combatrelated post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but did not make the decision public. Last week Stars & Stripes broke the news. The Defense Department inflamed controversy further by attempting to defend the decision, saying “PTSD is…not a wound intentionally caused by the enemy from an ‘outside force or agent.'”

A Frazier Park veteran with PTSD shot himself in the head in 2006 after returning from Afghanistan. A National Guard veteran who had served in Iraq and was unable to secure VA services did the same thing on Gorman Post Road in 2008.

An enemy that booby traps fallen soldiers’ bodies is most definitely “intentionally” inflicting psychological wounds, The New York Times said about the Defense Department’s stand, adding: “The decision ends the hope of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who…believed the Purple Heart could honor their sacrifice and help remove some of the stigma associated with [securing help for] the condition.”

PTSD is an ailment that comes back home with soldiers and begins to impact family and community around them. It is estimated to affect 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (over 300,000 of those deployed so far). Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol can be an offshoot of PTSD that goes untreated. Impulsive rage or emotional numbness are other symptoms.

In May 2008 a military psychologist told reporters that awarding the Purple Heart for PTSD would go a long way toward chipping away at prejudices surrounding seeking help for the disease.

John E. Fortunato runs the Recovery and Resilience Center in Fort Bliss, Texas.

“Because PTSD affects structures in the brain, it’s a physical disorder, no different from shrapnel,” Fortunato explained to Stars & Stripes. “This is an injury.”

Pine Mountain veterans’ rights activist Simba Wiley Roberts welcomes the Veterans Service Department’s arrival on the mountain, but expressed anger at the Defense Department’s recently revealed decision: “We see this as a smokescreen. A piece of metal is not even the issue.”

He says the mountain’s many military veterans need help obtaining their benefits and adequate medical care.

The Kern County Veterans Service Department was established in 1944 to do just that, but this is the first time in over 10 years that they have set up a regular schedule in the Mountain Communities.

The representative will be at the Family Resource Center (FRC) the second Tuesday of every month from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. Jeannine Waits and Supervisor Michael Penney met with four vets on Tuesday, Jan. 13. No reservation is necessary. The counselors are county employees, not affiliated with the VA. They act independently to help veterans receive their benefits.

Roberts said the treatment of veterans with PTSD is a good example of why vets need this kind of assistance.

“The Pentagon knows that PTSD is an ugly, nasty thing. As a guy who knows the permanence of PTSD and knows the games of the VA, I have seen they are not down for helping, they are down for money. They don’t want to have to pay.”

When a reporter asked U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about Fortunato’s comments about the physical nature of PTSD last May, Gates said the matter was “clearly something that needs to be looked at,” prompting a review by the Defense Department’s Awards Advisory Group. In her statement last week, the Defense Department’s spokesperson said Dr. David Chu, undersecretary of personnel and readiness, decided that PTSD does not meet the requirements for the Purple Heart.

“Historically, the Purple Heart has never been awarded for mental disorders or psychological conditions resulting from witnessing or experiencing traumatic combat events (such as combat stress reaction, shell-shock, combat stress fatigue, acute stress disorder, or PTSD),” she said, “the Awards Advisory Group also found that the requirement that the Purple Heart is awarded for wounds caused by “an outside force or agent” is a fair and objective standard for who should receive the award.

In the 1990s, research based in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals in Colorado and Texas by pioneers in EEG Neurotherapy such as VA psychologist Eugene G. Peniston showed there are objective physiologic indicators of PTSD, but this data was not widely reported at the time. The physiologic nature of the illness has not been studied by most physicians.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veterans group, lobbied against the proposal to honor PTSD with the medal. “The Purple Heart should only be awarded to troops who shed blood…” said Joe Palagyi, the group’s national adjutant.

Fortunato does not agree. “These soldiers have paid as high a price, some of them, as anybody with a traumatic brain injury, as anybody with shrapnel wound – and what [this decision] does is, it says this is the wound that isn’t worthy, and I say it is.”

In an attempt to deflect criticism raised by the decision against offering a Purple Heart, Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday, Jan. 8, “I don’t think anybody should assume that the decision is in any way reflective on how seriously we take the problem of PTSD.” The Associated Press reported he said the military is budgeting money for research, development, treatment and preventive measures.

The fear of losing a security clearance is one of the biggest reasons that combat veterans do not seek mental-health care, National Public Radio has reported. Secretary Gates has now announced a policy change to respond to that problem.

The question, “In the last seven years, have you sought mental health counseling?” will no longer be asked on the application for a government security clearance, in a move to make it easier for soldiers to seek treatment.

Under the new policy, applicants may still obtain clearances if the mental health treatment was for problems stemming from service in a combat zone.

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