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The State of the VA

The State of the VA
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By Amanda Hart
Illustration by Blake Jones

This year’s State of the Union address given by Mr. Obama seemed to address the needs of our nation and supplied plenty of hope to liberals all over the country. Including the announcement that, “By the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”  After 10 years at war, military families and our nation can finally rest a little easier. And according to Obama, “We will keep faith with our veterans – investing in world-class care, including mental health care for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities they have earned.” Bravo Mr. President, bravo. This is all great news if only it were the least bit true. Our troops coming home is accurate but Obama seems to be a bit confused about the “world-class” care they are sure to receive. There is nothing classy about the rates at which our service men and women experience homelessness, unemployment, mental health issues or suicide once they return from battle. And to claim that we are keeping our end of the bargain to care for our military members and their families is about as accurate as President Bush reassuring us that the weapons of mass destruction were just in a really good hiding spot.

According to statistics released by the Veterans Affairs office, an estimated 18 veterans commit suicide daily. To break it down further, every 80 minutes in this country we lose a returning vet due to the severe lack of services needed to help them transition. Annually, we lose approximately 6,500 veterans to suicide which means for every one service member we lose on the battlefield we lose another 25 once they return home. The battle that continues once service members return home is marginalized and, frankly, ignored. Evidence linking post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to our high suicide rates is beginning to surface as studies are being conducted. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops after being exposed to psychological trauma. CTE is a degenerative brain condition that develops after the brain experiences physical trauma.  CTE is common among veterans who lived through things such as bomb explosions. According to the Boston University School of Medicine, “CTE sufferers display such symptoms as memory impairment, emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression, and problems with impulse control. Eventually, the disease progresses to full-blown dementia.” Tests are beginning to show that there might be a link between our high rates of suicide and soldiers who have experienced PTSD coupled with CTE. According to the Center for a New American Security, approximately one in five veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq will suffer from PTSD or CTE.  Experts predict the worst is yet to come as more vets return home and these disorders are given time to mature.

Casey (last name omitted at his request) is a native Houstonian who served in the Army between June 2005 and November 2010, including a 15-month tour in Iraq. His decision to share his story was not an easy one. Casey, like most veterans, finds it difficult to talk about what he has experienced since returning home. Issues such as the ineptitude that seems to plague the Veterans Affairs office to the daily struggle that Casey experiences is all conversation that seems less than “appropriate” for a friends-sharing-conversation-over-coffee atmosphere. The apprehension to share their stories leaves many vets across the country to deal with the aftermath of war on their own.

Casey’s story sounds all too familiar to anyone who has either served in the military or is a relative of someone who has. Halfway through his tour, a rocket exploded a few feet above Casey’s head as he lay sleeping in his barrack. The explosion caused him to be thrown across the room. Living through this attack left Casey with a distinguished Purple Heart and a traumatic brain injury. “After the explosion, I blacked out,” Casey explains as he exhales from his cigarette while we chat on the patio at Black Hole Coffee House. “After I came to, I was evaluated by a doctor who explained to me that ‘if’ I failed my memory test I risked the chance of losing my flight status (Casey flew unmanned aerial vehicles) and would be recycled back into the infantry.”

Even though Casey did in fact fail his memory test, he agreed with the doctor that he was fine and was released that same night. Casey was unaware that he had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury until just a few months ago. “I didn’t find out until I requested the documentation for my Purple Heart. When they sent me the documents, I was reading over them and saw my diagnosis for the first time.”

It is unknown if Casey’s brain did develop CTE from the blast. Currently, the only way to verify such damage to the frontal lobes is to examine the brain after death. PTSD is also difficult to verify even though science has made huge advances towards understanding it better. According to the VA, 444,551 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, 239,174 of those with PTSD. “My chest constantly feels as though it is on fire. I feel depressed frequently. I lose track of time or days. I’m often tired, and I’m easily frustrated or angered by situations that I can’t control.” When asked, Casey shares with me what it’s like to live with PTSD. “I’m always thinking about Iraq. Certain sounds or smells really bother me when they trigger a flashback. It’s hard to explain.  I can’t help but replay situations and think about how if I had done something a little bit different friends of mine might still be alive,” he says as he stares down at his coffee. Casey goes on to explain, “Like, I was checking the fuel sample of one of the planes and the fuel tank broke. Because of this, the plane took off behind schedule and I wasn’t there to back up my infantry crew and as they entered a site, a bomb attached to a door exploded. If I had been on time maybe I could have saved some of them. I think this is one of the reasons I get really flustered and anxious about being on time now. These are the things I relive every day and in my nightmares.” He concludes, “I don’t get much sleep these days.”

At the end of his tour, the Army enrolled Casey at the University of Houston. He was in line to become an officer.  There was a mere 21 days between him flying back from Iraq and beginning his first day of classes.  “Most soldiers have to take months of “Don’t beat your wife” or “Don’t abuse drugs or kill yourself” classes but they waived all that for me so I could start school.” After a few semesters, Casey took a medical leave of absence from school and shortly after that was released from the Army. In early 2011, he went to work on an oil rig in North Dakota but Casey, like many other vets, found it difficult to hold a job. According to the most recent labor statistics, a little over 200,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets are unemployed. It was here that Casey found himself living in his truck, homeless. “I checked myself into a VA hospital but found them to not be helpful so I came back to Houston and started looking for work.”

According to the VA, more than 100,000 vets are living on the streets on any given night and that is supposed to be the conservative estimate. “Lucky” for Casey, his family is here and he hasn’t found himself on the street except for that short period of time. However, he did have a second encounter with the VA hospital. A few months after returning from North Dakota, Casey checked himself into the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center here in Houston for mental health reasons. “They took away my shoe strings, put me on four or five medications, would only let me go outside for 20 minutes a day, served me food that was inedible, would only let me have visitors for a few hours every Sunday morning, and wouldn’t even allow me to have an occasional smoke. And some of the nurses would smoke in front of me during the 20 minutes they were outside supervising me,” Casey explains. “I felt like I was in prison. I kept telling them that the environment was highly stressful and one day they had a meeting and refused me my 20 minutes of outside time because my scheduled time coincided with their meeting. I told them I was taking my 20 minutes outside and they refused saying I knew the rules stated that I could only go outside supervised and they were too busy to go out that day. I went outside anyway and when I came back in, they told me that I was too aggressive to remain in their care.” So after five weeks they kicked him out, 20 pounds lighter from a lack of food and with nothing but a newly acquired pharmaceutical cocktail. He stopped taking the mix of anxiety medication and mood stabilizers after he left because they made him feel worse than before he went into the VA facility. “I am not looking for a handout but I do feel like I deserve to be treated better than people who are in prison. Actually, people who commit violent murders in high security prisons get to spend an hour a day outside. And I serve this country and only get 20 minutes? I feel like this war was pointless but it doesn’t change the fact that I did risk my life.”

So now Casey, like so many other countless veterans, is left to sit around and play the waiting game.  Fifteen months ago, Casey filed a disability claim for his PTSD and traumatic brain injury and has yet to receive any sort of help. His social worker is impossible to reach and whenever he does manage to get them on the phone, they never have any useful advice other than to just keep waiting. “It is so frustrating that I have days where I debate not even bothering with them anymore. It just seems like this huge bureaucratic machine that is impossible to maneuver and no one really there to help me.” According to a December 2011 VA document, a few more than 860,000 veterans had pending compensation claims with the VA. As of December 2012, VA documents showed that the number of claims had risen to 900,677. This is particularly alarming when you consider that at the beginning of 2012, the VA promised to make drastic cuts to the backlog but instead only added to it. Think about how many lives are severely distressed or tragically, in some cases, come to an end due to this failing system. There is no way around it other than a complete and total overhaul of the system. 20 something years ago, the IRS was as dysfunctional as the VA disability claims are today. However, these days the IRS guarantees a refund if you have one coming within three weeks of your claim being accepted by subjecting claims to a possible audit. The same could easily be done with the VA claim system. The difference here is that this money holds the key to drastically changing a veteran’s risk of being homeless, unemployed, and mentally unstable. Ultimately, in many cases, it can change a life.

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