After veteran Daniel Somers’s suicide, his family has a new mission: Improve VA services
Despite backlogs, VA disability claims processors get bonuses
Mary Shinn/News21 – Sean Meade was an Army National Guard soldier who was deployed to Iraq during 2006 and 2007. He filed a disability claim in 2008 for back problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. After his PTSD claim was denied, he appealed in 2009 and is still waiting for a response.
…The VA has for years tried to alleviate the load on overwhelmed offices by shipping backlogged claims around the country to other offices. [Allison] Hickey ordered this “brokering” of old claims as a way for some offices to meet her deadlines.
According to internal documents, the VA has shuffled more than 50,000 claims among regional offices since January, including 16,000 in June. But workers say the practice is unfair to local veterans filing claims when their local office has to shoulder the load for poorly managed offices.
Workers in Milwaukee received more than 5,000 old claims from Houston and Los Angeles beginning June 11. Sioux Falls received 2,600 claims from St. Louis, Houston and Portland, Ore. Meanwhile, Reno completed just more than 1,000 old claims after shipping off 4,500 claims in its inventory to offices in Louisville, Sioux Falls and elsewhere.
12:01 AM EDTMy story: Deployed twice between 2005 and 2009 for total of over 27 months as an airborne infantry soldier with Army, engaged and witnessed ‘things’, Separated in March of 2010 & filed for claims; PTSD (was already on depression drugs before filing), hurt knees (paratrooper unit), and others.. knees and tinnitus approved (20%) but PTSD denied as of November 2010,, appealed with more evidence, subsequent diagnosis, and additional incidents (suicidal) of PTSD.. After denying PTSD initially, they have JUST now approved (admitted) that PTSD is/was service connected.. more than 3 years … I am wondering if they were just waiting/wondering if I was going to really go threw with offing myself in the meantime :/ …. NOTE: I can say, fortunately, that I have been healthy and happy for more than two years now, thanks to the selfless service of those within the Wounded Warrior program (unlike those caught and/or bought into the bureaucracy of the VA). Just like misletox explains,, the lack of funding and subsequent failures are not a coincidence or unnoticed… it is what they intend to achieve: extreme minimal liability for vets (aside from Shinseki’s efforts, he is/was a true patriot to veterans, despite his parents home being destroyed by us,, Hiroshima) I have a great idea on how to prevent huge backlogs of veteran claims in the first place… stop invading/destroying other’s countries illegitimately…
2:01 AM EDTNathan,
As a tech guy who has also been systems analyst for medical reimbursement software, I am quite familiar with the complexities of workflow processing of claims.
I don’t understand why the VA is so far behind. I can guess it’s because the Tier 1 government contractor is typical of all Tier 1 contracts – it’s a political sinecure with non-standard hardware and software. [30 years ago I worked for a company that won a bid for IRS installations and was still in use 25 years later]
I attended a neuroscience conference two years ago at UCSF where VA and DARPA experts invited suggestions and presented data. I find it hard to comprehend why treatment for PTSD is denied.
I should also note that i have a son on active duty, but stateside. The neighbor’s son did 2 tours in Afghanistan. A friend’s brother was a senior medical officer in Kandahar. There is no question we MUST do better. Your suggestions are appreciated.
The brave wife of an Iraq war veteran is calling for better treatment of PTSD after her husband shot her in both legs with an AK-47. Despite almost losing them after her husband opened fire last month during an argument at home in Lake Worth, Florida, Samantha Brown (main picture and left with her two children) feels her husband Adam didn’t receive the treatment he needed (bottom right)
Before the recent wars, the military suicide rate was well below the civilian rate. But the gap began narrowing shortly after 2001, a time when the civilian rate was also climbing. The sharpest increases were in the Army and the Marine Corps, the services most involved in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2012, suicides among active-duty troops hit a record 350, twice as many as a decade before and more than the number of American troops killed in either combat operations or transportation accidents that year. Today, the military suicide rate is almost the same as the one for civilians, when the civilian rate is adjusted to match the high percentage of young white men in the military.
Yes sir: Daniella, daughter of Capt. Dan Moen, salutes just like her father as the national anthem is played at his deployment ceremony on January 11 at Fort Drum, NY
It is a family tradition of serving our country and giving back. Bryan was a patriot, a very strong lover of his country and what it stood for, and that was one of the things that he felt that he should do. — Greg Wood, father
This image of Lance Cpl. Chuck Sketch, who lost his vision and both his legs battling cancer, and is competing against other Wounded Warriors in the 2012 Marine Corps Trials, took first place in the Portrait category
Family life: Tony Porta now has a son, pictured, who he named Kenneth Charles in memory of his two best friends killed alongside him in Iraq
The Humvee carrying Porta, Charles Palmer and Kenneth Mack drove over the device in Al Asad on May 5.
Palmer and Mack were killed but Porta said he was inspired to fight by his two friends.
‘They were telling me to get up. ‘It’s not my time yet.’ They cheer me to get up — ‘Get up and get out.”
‘They were [dead] yes, but they were there. They were.’
He underwent 128 operations and was left unrecognizable by his injuries – also losing an arm.
Before the blast: Tony Porta served in Iraq as a Marine corporal, pictured. He was left with horrendous injuries in an attack in 2007
Love: The support of his new wife Daisy Porta has helped Tony come to terms with his injuries. The couple have a young son
Heartwarming moment Snow White grants little girl’s wish for her Marine father to come home
Wish: The pair then covered their eyes as Alyssa made her wish for her father, a Marine serving in Afghanistan, to come home
Happy ending: The father and daughter have a long embrace outside the castle with her mother and little brother seen standing behind
Click for video:
More U.S. soldiers on active duty committed suicide than died in combat last year, shocking new figures reveal
PUBLISHED: 19:37 EST, 3 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:13 EST, 4 January 2013
‘An outrage’: More soldiers committed suicide this year than were killed in active service in Afghanistan. 177 killed themselves while on active duty while 176 died in combat
‘Epidemic of suicide’: There has been a nine per cent increase in the number of active U.S. army servicemen committing suicide since 2009. Congressmen have called for more funding for prevention programs for 2013
‘Making a dent’: The Department for Defense claims it is starting to combat the growing issue of suicide among troops. More on active service committed suicide this year than were killed in battle
Of course, more can always be done to care for our troops and their families. A recent government report says we lose a veteran to suicide nearly every hour of every day. While veterans represent less than 9 percent of the population, they are about 15 percent of the homeless. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to report a traumatic brain injury and to have received mental health treatment than veterans of other wars — treatment that must continue without the stigma it holds.
VA study: 22 vets commit suicide every day
Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY 4:13p.m. EST February 1, 2013
Veterans Affairs says it has responded to the findings by creating a task force “to provide recommendations for innovative mental health care.” It has also increased staff for the VA crisis hotline.
An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide in the United States every day, a slightly higher number than the 18-per-day rate the Department of Veterans Affairs had indicated in years past, according to a VA study made public today.
“We have more work to do,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement released Friday. “We will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve.”
The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee called the pace of veterans suicides unacceptable. “What we’re seeing is an extraordinary tragedy which speaks to the horror of war and the need for us to do a much better job of assisting our soldiers and their families after they return home,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House VA Committee, said he is holding a hearing Feb. 13 to find out “if the VA’s complex system of mental health and suicide prevention services (is) improving the health and wellness of our heroes in need.”
Researchers found that the average age of a veteran who commits suicide is about 60. Analysts concluded that Vietnam and female veterans need particular focus.They also determined that a very intense period of risk for suicide is the first four weeks after someone leaves the military, and that this period requires strong monitoring and case management.
The analysis found that the actual number of estimated suicides per day among veterans has remained relatively stable, ranging from 20 per day in 2000 to 18 per day in 2007 and 22 per day in 2009 and 2010, the latest estimates available, according to a report on the study released Friday. The rate of suicide among veterans who use VA health care services has remained steady in recent years, at about 36 per 100,000.
The most common means of committing suicide by veterans — in half of the deaths — is drug overdose or poisoning, according to the VA study.
The department says it has responded to the findings by creating a task force “to provide recommendations for innovative mental health care.” It has also increased staff for the VA crisis hotline, which the department says has been instrumental in 26,000 rescues. The VA has also is expanding its mental health staff by 1,600 clinicians and is training 800 peer-to-peer specialists to work with other veterans.
The new analysis of veteran suicides was possible because of a nearly 20-month effort to obtain suicide data on veterans from each state. At least 34 states have cooperated and another eight are in the process of doing so. The final analysis released Friday was based upon only a partial completion of data received from 21 states, the VA says.
Vet who saved many in Iraq couldn’t escape demons
War » Peter Linnerooth counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq.
In this Autumn 2006 photo provided by Brock McNabb, McNabb places a “combat patch” on Pete Linnerooth’s uniform at their office in Baghdad, denoting that he had been in-country long enough to earn the badge of honor and is officially a combat veteran. Capt. Linnerooth was an Army psychologist who counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. Hundreds upon hundreds sought his help. For nightmares and insomnia. For shock and grief. And for reaching that point where they just wanted to end it all. Linnerooth did such a good job his Army comrades dubbed him The Wizard. His “magic” was deceptively simple: an instant rapport with soldiers, an empathetic manner, a big heart. (AP Photo/Brock McNabb)
By SHARON COHEN | The Associated Press
First Published Mar 16 2013 08:36 pm • Last Updated Mar 16 2013 11:10 pm
He had a knack for soothing soldiers who’d just seen their buddies killed by bombs. He knew how to comfort medics sickened by the smell of blood and troops haunted by the screams of horribly burned Iraqi children.
Capt. Peter Linnerooth was an Army psychologist. He counseled soldiers during some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq. Hundreds upon hundreds sought his help. For nightmares and insomnia. For shock and grief. And for reaching that point where they just wanted to end it all.
Linnerooth did such a good job his Army comrades dubbed him The Wizard. His “magic” was deceptively simple: an instant rapport with soldiers, an empathetic manner, a big heart.
For a year during one of the bloodiest stretches of the Iraq war, Linnerooth met with soldiers 60, 70 hours a week. Sometimes he’d hop on helicopters or join convoys, risking mortars and roadside bombs. Often, though, the soldiers came to his shoebox-sized “office” at Camp Liberty in Baghdad.
There they’d encounter a raspy-voiced, broad-shouldered guy who blasted Motorhead, Iron Maiden and other ear-shattering heavy metal, favored four-letter words and inhaled Marlboro Reds — once even while conducting a “stop smoking” class. He was THAT persuasive.
Linnnerooth could be tough, even gruff at times, but he also was a gentle soul, a born storyteller, a proud dad who decorated his quarters with his kids’ drawings and photos. He carried his newborn daughter’s shoes on his ruck sack for good luck.
Linnerooth left Iraq in 2007, a few months short of the end of his 15-month tour. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d heard enough terrible stories. He’d seen enough dead and dying.
He became a college professor in Minnesota, then counseled vets in California and Nevada. He’d done much to help the troops, but in his mind, it wasn’t enough. He worried about veteran suicides. He wrote about professional burnout. He grappled with PTSD, depression and anger, his despair spiraling into an overdose. He divorced and married again. He fought valiantly to get his life in order.
But he couldn’t make it happen.
As the new year dawned, Pete Linnerooth, Bronze Star recipient, admired Army captain, devoted father, turned his gun on himself. He was 42.
He was, as one buddy says, the guy who could help everybody — everybody but himself.
He liked to jokingly compare himself to an intrepid explorer stranded in one of the most remote corners of the earth.
Linnerooth’s best buddy, Brock McNabb, recalls how they’d laugh and find parallels to the plight of Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, Endurance, became trapped in the Antarctic during an early 20th-century expedition.
This was the desert, of course, but the analogy seemed apt: Both seemed impossible missions — Linnerooth and two teammates tended to the psychological needs of thousands — and both groups depended on each other to survive.
“There’s no cavalry to save the day,” McNabb explains. “You ARE the cavalry.”
McNabb and a third soldier, Travis Landchild, were the tight-knit mental health crew in charge of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division in the Baghdad area. They were there when the surge began and the death toll escalated.
Landchild says the three dubbed themselves “a dysfunctional tripod.” Translation: One of the three “legs” was always broken, or stressed out, and without fail, “the other two would step up and support that person.”
They counseled guys who’d witnessed Humvees vaporize before them, young medics dealing with double amputations, women sexually assaulted in combat zones. There were soldiers suffering from paranoia, bipolar disorder and anxiety. And then there were those who were suicidal.
“People are in rough, rough shape … it’s misery all the time and it does affect you,” McNabb says.
Linnerooth — the only trained psychologist of the three — was frustrated by what he regarded as the Army’s view of mental health as a second-class problem that can be minimized or overlooked during deployment, McNabb says. At times, he also felt powerless — stabilizing soldiers, then seeing them return to missions, knowing they’d be traumatized again.
“Sometimes he felt he was putting a Band-Aid over a bullet hole,” McNabb says.
For about half his tour, Linnerooth’s office was a 12-by-12 trailer. His heavy-metal soundtrack provided a sound buffer. A blanket serving as a makeshift room divider also provided a modicum of privacy.
Linnerooth brought hope to those gripped by hopelessness. In a desert, he could always find the glass half full.
But he wasn’t just confronting emotional trauma. He was in the same complex as the Riva Ridge Troop Medical Clinic. When mass casualties arrived, he helped out, squeezing IV bags and handling bandages.
Linnerooth wrote about that in an essay, describing a female soldier who died after her Humvee had been struck by an armor-penetrating explosive.
“I stood at her head and considered her hair, for Christsakes!” he wrote. “The blast had mussed her hair. Removed her foot, cleaved her abdomen, but mussed her hair. For whatever reason I looked at it and longed to smooth it back from her forehead. Like I do for my children. …. Hell, I don’t know what to do in an abattoir of human suffering, it’s not my job. I deal with easy things, like the paranoid, the personality disordered, and those without hope. All I wanted to do was smooth her hair, perhaps compose her for the next stage of her journey. But I never did it, and regret it to this day.”
Even as he comforted others, Linnerooth was showing signs of strain.
Ray Nixon, then a medic at Riva Ridge, remembers anguishing over critical decisions — assigning soldiers to what could be life-and-death missions — and talking with Linnerooth.
“He always made me feel better,” Nixon says. “He knew exactly what to say, exactly what direction to guide you in — but Pete was very bad at taking care of himself. Any time he was having problems or getting overwhelmed, instead of asking for help, he’d lock himself in his room and try to deal with it alone.”
He didn’t socialize. Friends, he’d say, were potential patients.
A year into the tour, McNabb says, Linnerooth walked in a doctor’s office and said: “‘I can’t stand it. This is too much. How much more misery and torture are these kids going to go through?’”
The doctor, McNabb says, asked if he might hurt himself. Linnerooth replied he wasn’t sure.
As he was evacuated, he told McNabb he was crushed having to abandon his teammates. But they were happy.
“We kind of had this hope that one of us made it,” Landchild says. “Yeah, he’s broken as heck and he has a lot of healing to do but he got OUT.”
“I think it was just kind of like a wall that he put up,” she says. “I asked him about that later and he said if he let that guard down, then it would be like a dam flooding and it would just all come out and he couldn’t be that way.”
There were some early warning signs, she says, including jokes about suicide. She dismissed it as gallows humor.
In 2008, after nearly six years in the Army, Linnerooth was a civilian again, returning to an academic world where his former professors remembered him as “brilliant” and “amazing.”
Patrick Friman, who was in charge of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Nevada-Reno, recalls how once at the out-patient psychological clinic, Linnerooth expertly developed a plan for a young mother. She was having trouble toilet training her 3 year old daughter, getting her to sleep alone and doing what she was asked.
“I marveled at how well he described the problem, the solution and the steps that need to be taken to achieve it,” Friman says,
Linnerooth also had made an impression at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he earned his master’s degree. Professor Daniel Houlihan, who was his adviser, remembers an enormously gifted writer who years ago predicted a high military suicide rate.
Linnerooth was hired to teach psychology at the school in 2008. He quickly became annoyed with 19-year-olds griping about tough grading standards — he’d just come from Iraq, where their peers worried about survival.
He missed meetings at times and seemed paranoid, shredding papers in his office, Houlihan recalls.
Things were also bad at home. Amy Linnerooth says they tried marital counseling.
Her husband seemed two people, she says. “It would be like the guy you knew … then a little thing would set him off,” she recalls. “I remember telling him ‘I just want to blend in with the wallpaper. I don’t want to be in your way.’ It was like walking on eggshells.”
In early 2009, Linnerooth’s depression took a disastrous turn. He nearly died from an overdose of pills.
His buddy, McNabb, phoned.
“Jesus, man you can’t even kill yourself right,” he teased. Linnerooth laughed.
But he also confided: “I just hated where my life was going. Here, I’m arguing with my wife. … I want to be normal for my kids. … I was tired of being here.’ ”
Amy Linnerooth says her husband was very remorseful. “He thought that was a really stupid thing to do to the kids and us,” she says. She was convinced he’d never try to harm himself again.
By late 2009, though, his marriage was failing and his job wasn’t working out.
Linnerooth was given an extended leave and headed west to start a new life.
McNabb had invited his pal to join him at the Santa Cruz County Vet Center in California.
Linnerooth liked his new surroundings but his ongoing divorce and separation from his kids weighed on him. Still, he remained an attentive, loving father. He’d fly to Minnesota often and while in California, he’d call his children, Jack, 9, and Whitney, 6, every night. He’d read to his son; he created a cartoon series for his daughter featuring a spider they called Gigerenzer.
Linnerooth also felt his work as a veterans’ readjustment counselor was helping people. He spoke at symposiums about the emotional trauma of war. With McNabb, he conducted a suicide prevention class for an Army Reserve unit, even as he himself was being treated for PTSD.
He became vocal about the strains on military psychologists. Linnerooth talked about the pressures to The New York Times and Time. He told the magazine in 2010 “the Army has been criminally negligent,” in not having enough mental health experts to serve combat vets, putting a bigger burden on those doing the job.
He joined Bret Moore, another former Army psychologist he befriended before Iraq, to produce an academic paper about professional burnout. “He wanted to write and get the word out,” Moore says. “It was therapeutic for him. … He really was putting his heart and soul into it.”
For a time, Linnerooth seemed happy, telling Moore about his budding relationship with Melanie Walsh, a social worker. They’d met a decade earlier when she was an undergraduate assistant at Reno. Moore was invited to their July 2011 wedding in Lake Tahoe.
But soon marital strains surfaced. He also began missing deadlines for their paper.
Moore says he eventually toned down Linnerooth’s work to make it more academic and less emotional. “You could really see the anger,” he says, noting it reflected both his attitude toward the military and his disintegrating personal life. The paper was published in 2011 in an American Psychological Association journal.
Linnerooth moved to Reno to be with his new wife. He was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work with vets struggling with PTSD and other problems.
There was a hitch, though. He was approaching a two-year deadline to get a state license required by the VA.
McNabb urged him to take the test. For some reason, he didn’t. The VA let him go. (The agency said in a January statement that it was forced to terminate Linnerooth because of the lack of licensing but offered to take him back once he finished the requirements.)
“He felt betrayed,” his widow says. “He deteriorated after that and he deteriorated quickly.”
At the end of last summer, Linnerooth returned home to Minnesota so he could see his children daily. He traveled back to California, though, for a joyous occasion — the birth of his son, David.
He spoke often with his buddy, McNabb, and seemed optimistic, considering careers outside psychology.
Linnerooth was busy with family during the holidays: He traveled west to see his baby and sent photos to his sister, Mary. On Jan. 1, he spent a happy day with his son, Jack.
The next day, though, McNabb says, a fight with his wife, alcohol and a loaded gun proved a tragic combination.
“For the record, Pete Linnerooth did not want to die,” McNabb says. “He just wanted the pain to end. Big difference.”
For all those who loved and admired him, for all those who saw him at his best and worst, these past weeks have been filled with sorrow, regret and inescapable irony.
“He didn’t like to burden other people,” his widow says. “I don’t know anyone who knew how to comfort people like he did. … It’s such a tragedy. He had the skill, he genuinely cared and he could have helped so many people. And now he’s gone.”
His family and friends gathered on a bitter cold January day in Minnesota to bid farewell.
The night before, his Army pals toasted their buddy and placed his urn on the table, covering it with a Motorhead T-shirt.
Later in his hotel near Fort Snelling National Cemetery, McNabb wondered how to honor his friend’s legacy. He was limited to 30 characters on Pete’s headstone. How do you capture a life in a handful of words?
McNabb then remembered something Linnerooth once said: “Maybe we’re all meant for just one great deed and we’re done.”
That gave him an idea.
The next day, on a 4-degree, cloudless morning, Capt. Peter J.N. Linnerooth was laid to rest with taps and a 21-gun salute.
After lunch, a small group of Army friends who’d served with him in Iraq returned to the unmarked stone as the sun lowered in the winter sky.
McNabb leaned over a long arm, tapped the marble and addressed Pete:
“You owe me a —- ton of beers when I see you next,” he said with a smile.
Then he surveyed the surrounding graves, calling out to Pete those buried nearby, when they served and in what branch of military. These were now his neighbors.
“You’re with all these people who’ll love you for all time,” he said.
It was finally time to go.
On a February day, the engraved headstone arrived. It’s etched with Peter Linnerooth’s name, his military service and a tribute to his great deed, summed up in this spare epitaph:
Unmasking the agony: Combat troops turn to art therapy
This mask was created by an Army flight medic who said one side represents the United States shedding tears for the military and the other side represents the military shedding tears for the U.S. A quote on the mask reads “I have destroyed my life and myself so that others may live.”
‘I’m sorry… I am happier now’: Suicide note of decorated marine, 24, who killed himself in his childhood bedroom after battling PTSD
Burdened: The 24-year-old had enrolled at Palm Beach State College but could not overcome his PTSD
A hero broken by war: Afghanistan veteran Jake Wood admits he’s a walking timebomb – and there are hundreds more like him
By TONY RENNELL
PUBLISHED: 20:03 EST, 14 February 2013 | UPDATED: 08:43 EST, 15 February 2013
Struggle: Jake Wood spiralled into the bleakness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Jake Wood is paranoid. To stand any chance of sleep at night, he must lie facing a closed bedroom door with a hammer close to hand under the bed, so he can kill any night intruders before they kill him.
And even then he may well wake up screaming and drenched in a sweat of terror.
Taking a shower in the morning, he never takes his eyes off the bathroom door, though he knows full well that it is locked and bolted.
Out in the street, the sound of a pneumatic drill sends him to the ground on one knee, arm raised, primed to fire.
‘Just the bang of a door and I am back in Afghanistan,’ the former soldier says.
Everyday life defeats a man whose courage under fire cannot be questioned, but who is haunted by what he has seen and done.
‘I cannot stand the sensation of anyone walking unseen behind me. On the Underground, I never take my eyes off anyone with a backpack in case their hands make a sudden movement towards a detonator.’
His senses deceive him. ‘I see blood in the blank canvas of snow, just as I saw blood in the pale sand of Helmand Province.
‘I know I am hallucinating, but when I turn away and force myself to look again, it is still there.’
And, as he explains movingly in a new book, Wood knows the precise moment he finally lost control in Afghanistan.
As an experienced Territorial Army NCO, he was trying to stay alive under an enemy onslaught on forward operating base Inkerman — a makeshift outpost behind mud walls in the dangerous Sangin Valley — when a mortar eviscerated his respected, loved company commander.
As the ‘boss’, Captain Dave Hicks, lay dying in front of him in 2007, Wood’s mind went blank and his eyes took on that far-away look known as the ‘thousand-yard stare’ — the indication of a man who’s seen too much blood-letting and done too much killing.
What angers him is that ‘idiots’ back home who know nothing about the reality of war try to emulate that look.
‘I know of young men, sitting in front of war films and war games, who idolise this condition as a mark of a true warrior. But only some naive soul who had never felt this nothingness would think something so dumb.
‘You are no longer human, with all those depths and highs and nuances of emotion of a normal person. There is no feeling any more.
‘My mind has locked all this down. Instead, there is just an overwhelming blackness.
‘But when I close my eyes, I see the faces of the Taliban I killed. And I see Dave Hicks on a stretcher, a gaggle of anxious soldiers around him, an arm holding an IV fluid bag above him, voices urging him to hang on and him shaking gently as he tries to stay in this life, but can’t . . .’
Here is the almost unbridgeable gulf of understanding between the reality experienced by front-line soldiers we send to fight in Afghanistan and ‘home’ — the safe place they leave and then return to, many scarred in a way that the rest of us can barely imagine.
As a military historian, I have read thousands of first-hand accounts of war, in all its gore and glory, brutality and suffering. But there were tears in my eyes as I followed Wood’s story of his descent into the bleakness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I fear that, having sent tens of thousands of our young men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, our society sits on a volcano of suppressed emotion like his that — with the condition still not fully grasped and sympathised with — may erupt in our faces in years to come. Wood, a lance-sergeant, was a part-time soldier, dropping in and out of three-month and six-month tours.
It made the contrast with ‘normal’ life even sharper and more painful.
One minute he was just another grey-suited systems analyst in a bank in the rat race of London’s financial district, fighting for a place on the Tube or a drink at a bar.
The next, he was a squaddie in sand-coloured fatigues, toting an SA89 assault rifle in the badlands of Helmand Province, being shot at by Taliban insurgents.
The dissonance was huge and mind-blowing. He chose to go to war. He was bored at work, he had girl trouble, he wanted some excitement.
So, as a fully-trained member of the Honourable Artillery Company, the City of London’s centuries-old volunteer regiment, he went to Iraq in 2003 with the invasion force to oust Saddam Hussein.
Out on patrol, he lapped up the danger and thrived on the camaraderie.
Then, back home in the office, he was among people he could no longer relate to, living lives he thought frivolous. He felt like an outsider.
At the next opportunity, he took leave from his job again and returned to Basra in Iraq, where the British occupation force was fighting an increasingly bloody war against the insurgents armed with deadly roadside bombs and rocket- propelled grenades.
Under siege in their fortified camps, he and his mates endured ‘bowel-turning, sweating wet eternities of terror’.
Out on patrol, each man faced the extra horror of knowing that capture could well mean being beheaded.
Then again, the buzz of action thrilled him, and he revelled in the aggression needed to do his job and stay alive.
Amid the adrenaline and fear, his long-distance love affair with a girl back home soured — foundering on her loneliness, his jealousy and the fact he could not talk even to her about how it felt to be constantly balancing between living and dying.
The official Army advice to soldiers is to ‘communicate’ their feelings. But avoiding them is precisely what he — and thousands of others — did. Walled up inside their experiences, they suffered their traumas in silence.
Another return to ‘real’ life in London turned into disaster. He was losing his grip, exploding into violence in a bar, curling into a ball and crying when alone.
He was at odds with the world he came home to, where people seemed obsessed with celebrities but ignorant and uncaring of his reality.
When the call came to return to the front line — in Afghanistan — he leapt at the opportunity, because soldiering was the only life that made any sense to his troubled mind.
Up to this point, he had never knowingly killed anyone. He had nearly pulled the trigger several times, but never committed the ultimate act.
And, bizarrely, in his increasing frenzy, he longed to.
‘In the darkest, most naive recesses of my soldier’s soul, I wanted a “kill,” ’ he confesses. ‘Maybe it would be a thrill or as straightforward and impersonal as aligning sight and target and squeezing a finger.’
In Afghanistan in 2007, he got his wish. From a hilltop, he trained his monster of a 50-calibre heavy machine gun on a house in a compound where four Taliban were hiding. ‘I fired, a man died. I tried to feel something, anything, but there was nothing.’
But later he heard a radio transmission from that compound and the terrified voice of one of the wounded men trapped there calling for help.
He had a name — Musafer — and when no help came he bled to death. Suddenly, Wood could not get the image of this dying man out of his head.
After months more of killing, the thoughts of what he had done would keep him awake at night.
‘Much later, back home, feelings ambush me when I’m on my own, and I shake and break down.
‘I remind myself of what the Taliban would have done to me or my friends. But it does not take away the memory of methodically firing bursts into every corner of that compound — cold, pathological.
‘I scream and wither as my soul screams and withers, too, as my mind’s eye brings the gun sight to the fore — and I remember the bleeding, terrified Musafer.’
And then, not long after he had poured death on another human being, he was in the firing line as 150 Taliban surrounded the Inkerman military base and threw everything they had at its flimsy defences.
A grenade punched through the wall and blew the legs off an Afghan Army soldier nearby.
‘He is bleeding everywhere from the waist down. He looks up into my face with glazing eyes, smiles the faintest of smiles and murmurs soft snatches of song as he slips away into the darkness coming to take him.’
Then came the death of Captain Hicks, and Wood could take no more.
A sergeant-major saw that ‘thousand-yard stare’ in his eyes and sent him off to a psychiatric nurse, who diagnosed Acute Stress Reaction. He was told he was the 50th psychological casualty on that six-month tour alone.
Soon he was on his way home — and, as a part-time soldier, straight back into civvy street.
He came back to a country that seemed utterly indifferent to the suffering of its soldiers.
‘There are no flags or crowds of waiting loved ones, just the steadily corrosive feeling of being overlooked — and in favour of Paris Hilton and all the latest meaningless distractions inherent to our celebrity culture. I realised the so-called Military Covenant between soldier and nation was just a piece of paper, filed out of sight and out of mind.’
Meanwhile, ‘the ghost of Afghanistan walked with me in every footstep I took.
The war had come home with me. In my dreams, I run alone through streams and alleyways from innumerable hordes that want my blood.
‘Sometimes I kill some of my pursuers and wake just as their waxen faces and glassy eyes stare back at me. In other dreams I wake just as I am about to be ripped apart.’
It wasn’t just the memories and guilt that affected Wood. It was also the fact that the things that had kept him alive in Afghanistan — innate aggression, suspicion of any untoward movement, instant reaction — were unwanted in ‘normal’ life.
As a soldier on the front line, he was constantly alert for lethal threats.
His life depended on that. Back home, this had him ducking for cover whenever a car backfired.
He found it harder than ever to get on with people. He couldn’t concentrate on his job at the bank.
‘One moment I’m a heartbeat away from fainting and the next having to clench my sweating fists under the desk to stop me exploding. I feel like the walking dead.’
He was not surprised when the bank sent him home on sick leave — but disgusted when the private health care company he had been paying into refused the cost of treatment, because his condition was ‘caused by war’.
Wood’s problems piled up. The bank fired him, he was medically discharged from the Army and — the final straw — banned from going to his old regiment to meet mates because he dared to criticise the lack of support his family had received while he was away, and the lack of care he was getting.
With no job, forced to live on benefits, he self-harmed and contemplated suicide.
‘The ghosts and demons never leave me alone. I cannot sleep.
And I do not want to be part of a life that is just going to fade away into financial poverty, as a waning shade of my former self.’
The Army’s offer of a derisory £9,000 lump sum for his pains only added to his crippling sense of abandonment and betrayal.
Therapy, followed by a stay in the psychiatric wing of a hospital, dragged him back from the brink. Then a sympathetic lawyer took up his case for proper compensation.
He won. His claim that his mental health had been seriously affected by his battlefield experiences was successful, he was awarded £140,000 and a guaranteed income for life.
He began, slowly, to mend. Writing the book was part of the process. It deserves a wide, appreciative audience because it takes us on a haunting journey into the mind of someone who was no saint, who went to war for his own purposes and of his own free will, but did our dirty work and suffered gravely as a result.
The book’s title is Among You, and its message it that mentally and morally wounded soldiers like him are all around us, but society tends not to see them.
‘Wounds may heal, but scars remain,’ he says. He longs for a wife, children, love, but fears he may be too damaged.
But there is hope. At a Bonfire Night party, he nerved himself to endure the bangs, and the six-year-old daughter of a friend took his hand. ‘Don’t be scared, Jake,’ she said. For the first time, he wasn’t.
Among You: The Extraordinary True Story Of A Soldier Broken By War by Jake Wood (Mainstream, £14.99). To order a copy for £13.49 (incl P&P), tel: 0844 472 4157.
Soldier Boy, You’re Gonna Carry That Wait
The Grim Backlog at Veterans Affairs
Published: March 11, 2013
A new report based on previously unreleased data from the Department of Veterans Affairs paints a distressing portrait of an agency buried helplessly in paperwork — with a claims backlog that has gotten far worse in the past four years. The average wait to begin receiving disability compensation and other benefits is 273 days, and up to 327 days for veterans making claims for the first time. Those in big cities wait far longer — up to 642 days in New York. The total number of veterans with backlogged claims is about 600,000.
The reporter, Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent organization based in Berkeley, Calif., plumbed the Veterans Affairs Department’s records through the Freedom of Information Act, confirmed the data with the department and spoke with staff members, veterans, veterans’ advocates and members of Congress. He found that while the agency has spent four years and $537 million on a new computer system, 97 percent of veterans’ claims are still filed on paper. His article includes a map showing the scale of the problem and a stunning photo from a report last August by the agency’s inspector general about an office in Winston-Salem, N.C., that was so deluged with claims folders that they “appeared to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building.”
The agency admits being overwhelmed, but it says it is getting control. It says its job has become more complicated in part because it added more than 940,000 veterans to the compensation rolls in the last four years and covers more conditions — like those linked to Agent Orange and gulf war illness — while easing standards for proving post-traumatic stress disorder. It says that a digital system will level the paperwork mountain by 2015.
The oddness of the agency’s situation — optimistic reports of progress contrasted with dismal snapshots of the status quo — will surely be addressed in a hearing in the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Wednesday. The under secretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, will be there, we hope, to add clarity to the unsettling picture.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 15, 2013
An editorial on Tuesday about disability claims filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs misstated the size of a backlog. It is about 600,000 claims, not 900,000.
Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post – Diana M. Rubens is the Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore. The VA regional center in Baltimore is among those with the longest waits for veterans. The transition from a paper workflow is in progress.
Time to shake up the dysfunctional VA
By Duncan D. Hunter and Pete Hegseth, Published: April 10
Duncan Hunter represents California’s 50th District in the U.S. House. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. Pete Hegseth is chief executive of Concerned Veterans for America and served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army.
When President George W. Bush accepted Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as defense secretary in November 2006, it was interpreted as an admission that the war in Iraq needed new direction. Widespread dissatisfaction with the war’s progress, reflected in that year’s midterm elections, demanded fresh leadership at the Pentagon. Two years later, after a surge of troops and a new strategy, the war looked much different.
Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs is in an analogous quagmire as it struggles to provide benefits quickly to veterans of all generations. From whistleblowers to unfavorable watchdog reports to wasted money, evidence of VA dysfunction is staggering. We have been strong supporters of the department’s efforts to improve operations, but the time for good intentions is over. Veterans are not getting the service they deserve.
During confirmation hearings on his nomination to lead the VA, Gen. Eric Shinseki pledged to streamline the claims process and bring the department into the digital age — laudable goals. But the VA is projected soon to hit a grim landmark of 1 million unprocessed benefits claims, with roughly 600,000 of those more than 125 days old. By the secretary’s own admission, this failure is not for a lack of resources. While other federal departments’ budgets have been cut, Congress has provided the VA with $25 billion in additional funding since 2009 and exempted it from sequestration-related cuts. Clearly, throwing money at the problem hasn’t worked.
In the past four years, the VA has spent more than $500 million to migrate its claims process online, but an estimated 97 percent of veterans claims are still filed on paper. Worse, despite a costly attempt to streamline data systems, Defense Department databases still do not communicate with VA systems.
The VA also refuses to admit the severity of its problems. It claims that the average time for processing benefits applications is 273 days, more than nine months. But a recent report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, drawing on internal VA documents, found that this severely understates reality. The center found that the VA’s ability to provide service to veterans has “virtually collapsed” since 2009 and that wait times are, on average, closer to a year. In New York, Los Angeles and other metro areas, veterans typically wait more than 600 days for their claims to be processed. And in too many cases, veterans are dying before their claims are adjudicated — 53 each day on average.
Some defenders of the VA say that the backlog is growing because new veterans are entering the system and access for veterans of previous generations has been expanded. Even so, the VA should have seen this crisis coming. Veterans returning home from war and more veterans accessing the system mean more claims. The department failed to plan sufficiently.
It is painfully clear that VA leadership is not up to the task. Eric Shinseki is a patriot and an honorable man who has served this country faithfully in and out of uniform. We have the utmost respect for him and his service, but his tenure at the Department of Veterans Affairs has not produced results.
In other spheres, a leader who falters would be swiftly replaced. Can you imagine a battlefield commander failing yet staying in place? We cannot and therefore believe that new leadership at the VA — from top to bottom, in Washington and across the country — is necessary.
We recognize that replacing a Cabinet secretary is a dramatic step. But few things are more important than honoring the commitments our nation has made to its veterans. The president and VA officials have said all the right things, but they have not delivered. Good intentions and rhetoric are not enough; results are what matter.
Since the problems at the VA did not arise overnight, merely replacing the secretary would not fix the underlying issues. The department needs a dynamic and uncompromising leader who will make bold reforms to a bloated and calcified bureaucracy and rethink the way we interact with and serve veterans of all generations. We need to learn from the private sector about customer service and efficiency and hold VA officials accountable to deliver on their mission.
We stand ready to work with President Obama and his administration to address the shortfall at the VA and to chart a course to reform and recovery. Those we served with, and all veterans, deserve no less from the nation they have sacrificed to defend.
Veterans in Maryland seeking disability benefits can face a perilous wait
Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post – Michael Scheibel is director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ office in Baltimore. The VA regional center is among those with the longest waits for veterans filing disability claims. The transition from a paper workflow is in progress.
By Steve Vogel, Published: February 3
BALTIMORE — Veterans across Maryland who have filed disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Baltimore office may wait more than a year for a decision and even then face a 25 percent chance that their claims will be mishandled, according to agency figures.
Nationally, the system is struggling with a backlog of more than 900,000 claims, the result of a sharp increase in filings by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as by older generations. The Baltimore regional office’s performance is among the nation’s worst, with claims filed by veterans seeking disability compensation pending 429 days on average, six times VA’s goal of 70 days, and 162 days longer than the national average.
The wait in Baltimore, which serves nearly a half-million veterans living in Maryland, is longer than in any of VA’s 56 offices except the one in Oakland, Calif., figures show. And the Baltimore office’s 73.8 percent accuracy rate, measuring the percentage of disability claims completed without error, is the country’s worst.
The Obama administration has made a pledge to break the agency’s backlog by 2015, with all claims processed within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy rate. VA has introduced a parade of changes nationwide to attack the backlog, including a new paperless claims system that Baltimore will get this year.
But Baltimore’s ills demonstrate how entrenched the backlog problem is and how difficult it will be to reach the 2015 goals.
“Why does it take so long to give people something they’ve earned?” Jonathan W. Greene, an Army veteran from Annapolis who served in Vietnam, asked during a visit to the federal building on Hopkins Plaza, a few blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was one of many trips he has made over the past year to sort out a problem over disability payments dating to 2010.
The answer to Greene’s question is a multilayered one. Baltimore offers a case study of what has happened in a system overtaken in the past decade by a flood of claims — more than 1 million a year — and what can happen when the challenge is compounded by what critics call VA mismanagement.
The increase in compensation requests has been fed by troops leaving the service as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, liberalized rules governing claims related to Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress, and enormous growth in the average number of medical conditions claimed by veterans.
Baltimore’s problems, veterans’ representatives say, also illustrate the role that poor planning and neglect — such as allowing extended vacancies in critical positions — have played in the crisis, which in this case left the office without adequate resources.
VA officials say the leadership team now directing Baltimore will make a difference. “Not to say we don’t have a big job in front of us, but I think we have the right folks to lead the effort,” said Diana Rubens, VA deputy undersecretary for field operations.
“I want to be a lot better than where we are,” said Michael Scheibel, who has been director of the Baltimore office since 2011.
Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Service Providers
VA Launches Hotline to Answer Questions on VA Health Care and Benefits for Women Veterans
US defense secretary pushes for overhaul of military sexual assault cases
Chuck Hagel proposes taking away commanders’ controversial ability to nullify verdicts under ‘convening authority’ system
‘He said no one would believe me’: Female Air Force recruit who was raped by her trainer sheds her anonymity and speaks out about how she had nowhere to turn after violent attack
Threats: Walker had told her that she had no chance getting officials to believe her as she was a woman
Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
Published: February 27, 2013
LOS ANGELES — In the caverns of her memory, Tiffany Jackson recalls the job she held, fleetingly, after leaving the military, when she still wore stylish flats and blouses with butterfly collars and worked in a high-rise with a million-dollar view.
Two years later, she had descended into anger and alcohol and left her job. She started hanging out with people who were using cocaine and became an addict herself, huddling against the wind on Skid Row here.
“You feel helpless to stop it,” she said of the cascade of events in which she went from having her own apartment to sleeping in seedy hotels and then, for a year, in the streets, where she joined the growing ranks of homeless female veterans.
Even as the Pentagon lifts the ban on women in combat roles, returning servicewomen are facing a battlefield of a different kind: they are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, an often-invisible group bouncing between sofa and air mattress, overnighting in public storage lockers, living in cars and learning to park inconspicuously on the outskirts of shopping centers to avoid the violence of the streets.
While male returnees become homeless largely because of substance abuse and mental illness, experts say that female veterans face those problems and more, including the search for family housing and an even harder time finding well-paying jobs. But a common pathway to homelessness for women, researchers and psychologists said, is military sexual trauma, or M.S.T., from assaults or harassment during their service, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sexual trauma set Ms. Jackson on her path. At first she thought she could put “the incident” behind her: that cool August evening outside Suwon Air Base in South Korea when, she said, a serviceman grabbed her by the throat in the ladies’ room of a bar and savagely raped her on the urine-soaked floor. But during the seven years she drifted in and out of homelessness, she found she could not forget.
Of 141,000 veterans nationwide who spent at least one night in a shelter in 2011, nearly 10 percent were women, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, up from 7.5 percent in 2009. In part it is a reflection of the changing nature of the American military, where women now constitute 14 percent of active-duty forces and 18 percent of the Army National Guard and the Reserves.
But female veterans also face a complex “web of vulnerability,” said Dr. Donna L. Washington, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. and a physician at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs medical center, who has studied the ways the women become homeless, including poverty and military sexual trauma.
Female veterans are far more likely to be single parents than men. Yet more than 60 percent of transitional housing programs receiving grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs did not accept children, or restricted their age and number, according to a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office.
The lack of jobs for female veterans also contributes to homelessness. Jennifer Cortez, 26, who excelled as an Army sergeant, training and mentoring other soldiers, has had difficulty finding work since leaving active duty in 2011. She wakes up on an air mattress on her mother’s living room floor, beneath the 12 medals she garnered in eight years, including two tours in Iraq. Job listings at minimum wage leave her feeling bewildered. “You think, wow, really?” she said. “I served my country. So sweeping the floor is kind of hard.”
Not wanting to burden her family, she has lived briefly in her car, the only personal space she has.
Some homeless veterans marshal boot-camp survival skills, like Nancy Mitchell, of Missouri, 53, an Army veteran who spent years, off and on, living in a tent.
“That’s how we done it in basic,” she said.
Double Betrayal of Assault
Of more than two dozen female veterans interviewed by The New York Times, 16 said that they had been sexually assaulted in the service, and another said that she had been stalked. A study by Dr. Washington and colleagues found that 53 percent of homeless female veterans had experienced military sexual trauma, and that many women entered the military to escape family conflict and abuse.
For those hoping to better their lives, being sexually assaulted while serving their country is “a double betrayal of trust,” said Lori S. Katz, director of the Women’s Health Clinic at the V.A. Long Beach Healthcare System and co-founder of Renew, an innovative treatment program for female veterans with M.S.T. Reverberations from such experiences often set off a downward spiral for women into alcohol and substance abuse, depression and domestic violence, she added.
“It just pulls the skin off you,” said Patricia Goodman-Allen, a therapist in North Carolina and former Army Reserve officer who said she once retreated to a mobile home deep in the woods after such an assault.
Ms. Jackson won full disability compensation for post-traumatic stress as a disabling aftermath of her sexual trauma, although she was at first denied military benefits.
She grew up in a tough section of Compton, Calif., and served as a heavy equipment operator in the Army, exhilarated by her sense of mastery in a male-dominated environment. But after the rape — which she kept to herself, not even telling her family — her behavior changed. She assaulted a sergeant, resulting in disciplinary actions. Back home, she lost her job in sales after she passed out, drunk, during a business phone call. “It looked like I really had my stuff together,” she said. “But I was dying inside.”
She served three years in prison for drug dealing and finally confided in a prison psychiatrist, who helped her see that many of her bad decisions had been rooted in the sexual trauma.
“I realized I needed help,” she says today, stable finally at 32 and snug in her mother’s home in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles. “But to me breaking down was soft.”
Her lawyer, Melissa Tyner, with the nonprofit Inner City Law Center here, said that many female veterans, like Ms. Jackson, associate the V.A. with a military that failed to protect them and thus forgo needed therapy. Other women who did not serve overseas said they did not realize they were veterans. “This makes them much less stable and therefore less likely to be housed,” she said.
California, home to a quarter of the nation’s veterans, is also home to a quarter of its homeless veterans. In Greater Los Angeles, a 2011 survey found 909 homeless women among them, a 50 percent increase since 2009.
Lauren Felber was one. Her decision to enter the military was a self-preservation instinct: she said she was molested by her father throughout her youth. “He’s dead now,” she said curtly. She thought the Army would make her strong.
When Ms. Felber returned, a debilitating complication from shingles made attempts to work, including bartending and construction jobs, painful. She became addicted to painkillers including methadone. Her welcome staying on friends’ couches ran out, and she headed to Pershing Square, in downtown Los Angeles, resplendent with fountains and soaring palms. She slept on the steps. Sidewalk habitués schooled her on the ins and outs of free food. “On the street, everyone’s hustling, selling something, even if it’s friendship,” she said.
Ms. Felber spent seven months in Rotary House, a shelter run by Volunteers of America. In her journal she wrote, “I walk the streets of Skid Row and see myself in the faces of the obsolete.”
But life is finally on the upswing: she recently moved into an apartment through a program that provides permanent housing and other services, called Housing and Urban Development — Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, or HUD-Vash. Having a place of her own, Ms. Felber said, felt so unreal that she piled blankets and slept on the floor, as she had on the streets. But gradually, walking around the bare rooms, she felt “an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude.”
“I am fighting the fear of losing it,” she added, “while I place each new item, making it a home.”
Returning veterans face a Catch-22: Congress authorized the V.A. to take care of them, but not their families. Women wait an average of four months to secure stable housing, leaving those with children at higher risk for homelessness. Monica Figueroa, 22, a former Army parachutist, lived in a family member’s auto body shop in the Los Angeles area, bathing her baby, Alexander, in a sink used for oil and solvents until, with help, they found temporary housing.
Michelle Mathis, 30, a single mother of three, has bounced among seven temporary places since returning home in 2005 with a traumatic brain injury. Ms. Mathis, who served as a chemical specialist in Iraq, relies on a GPS device to help her remember the way to the grocery store and her children’s school.
She said she did not feel safe in a shelter with her children, so they live in a room rented from a friend who is herself facing eviction. The only place Ms. Mathis said she truly felt at home was with fellow veterans at the V.A. medical center. Because she cannot afford child care, she sees her doctors with her year-old son Makai in tow.
Transitional housing has traditionally been in dormitory settings, which worked when returnees were mostly single men. But a March 2012 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found bedrooms and bathrooms without locks.
Dr. Susan Angell, the executive director for Veterans Homeless Initiatives for the V.A., said that each site was individual and required a different approach, whether it meant putting up walls or installing card readers to beef up security. “There is no blanket solution,” she said. “It has to fit the environment. We really want the best and safest environment for any veteran that comes to us for care.”
Pledging to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the government is pouring millions of dollars into permanent voucher programs, like HUD-Vash, for the most chronically homeless veterans. Thirteen percent of those receiving vouchers are women, nearly a third of them with children, Dr. Angell said.
A newer V.A. program, with $300 million allocated by Congress, is aimed at prevention, providing short-term emergency money to help with down payments, utility bills and other issues. The government’s motivation is financial as well as patriotic: the V.A. estimates that the cost of care for a homeless veteran, including hospitalizations and reimbursement for community-based shelters, is three times greater than for a housed veteran. A pilot project providing free drop-in child care is under way at three V.A. medical centers.
Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, recently introduced legislation that would reimburse for child care in transitional housing for the first time.
An Emotional Battalion
But change in Washington can be glacial. And a sturdy roof is not always enough. On the outskirts of Long Beach, Calif., a national nonprofit group, U.S. Vets, created living quarters for at-risk families at Villages at Cabrillo, former naval housing, with a special program for homeless female veterans.
But the directors soon grew perplexed by the large number of women who were struggling to make it on their own.
“We began to understand that so many of them suffered from sexual trauma,” said Steve Peck, the group’s president and chief executive. “Their inability to cope with those feelings made it impossible for them to put one foot in front of the other.”
The result was Renew, a collaboration with the V.A.’s Long Beach center. It incorporates psychotherapy, journal writing and yoga, and it accepts women who have been screened for military sexual trauma. Each class of a dozen women lives together for 12 weeks while spending eight-hour days at a women’s mental health clinic, “where you can cry and not have to encounter a bunch of men with your mascara running,” as Dr. Katz put it.
With Dr. Katz and other guides, the women formed an emotional battalion, squaring off against unseen enemies: fear, loneliness, distrust, anger and, most insidious of all, the hardened heart.
At the program’s graduation in December, held in a therapy room, nine women spoke movingly of choosing strength over fragility. Cindi, an officer in the Air Force with a master’s degree, said she had been bullied and ostracized by a female superior. After leaving the military, she had tumbled into a violent marriage and did not want her last name used for her own safety. She had been couch-surfing for a while.
She grew up in a household brimming with neglect. In her workbook, Cindi drew an image of water boiling on a stove, representing her traumas, more powerful than her self-regard.
After years of disappointment, Cindi was finally ready to forge new ground.
“I am more than the sum of my experiences,” she read from her journal, seeming to evoke the story of every homeless veteran sister. “I am more than my past.”
Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013
Millions went to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, leaving many with lifelong scars
Corpsman carry a wounded Marine to a Chinook 46, April 7, 2004, as the number of U.S. Marines killed in a five hour, house to house firefight in Ramadi on Tuesday climbed | David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT
By Chris Adams | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Ten years after the United States went to war in Iraq, one of the most common numbers associated with the conflict is the tally of Americans killed: nearly 4,500. Add in the twin war in Afghanistan, and the tally goes to more than 6,600.
But for the men and women who served in America’s war on terrorism, the number of people affected is far larger. And for many of those people, the impact of the war will last a lifetime.
“I give presentations all over the country, and audiences are routinely shocked and surprised at the numbers,” said Paul Sullivan, a former senior analyst at the Department of Veterans Affairs who handles veteran outreach for Bergmann & Moore, a Washington-area law firm that specializes in disability issues. “Quite often they will challenge me.”
Since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, about 2.5 million members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and related Reserve and National Guard units have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to Department of Defense data. Of those, more than a third were deployed more than once.
In fact, as of last year nearly 37,000 Americans had been deployed more than five times, among them 10,000 members of guard or Reserve units. Records also show that 400,000 service members have done three or more deployments.
“When I say 2.5 million people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, jaws drop,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive officer of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “I know which lines are going to get gasps, and that’s one of them. I don’t think they appreciate how many people have served, and particularly the number who have had repeated deployments. You’ve had an unprecedented demand on a small population. The general public has been incredibly isolated from those who served.”
For those who did serve, the effects of the war will linger for years, possibly a lifetime, according to a review of VA documents.
Already, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced more disability claims per veteran than other wars on the books, including Vietnam, Korea and World War II. While Vietnam extracted a far higher death toll – 58,000 died in that war – the total number of documented disabilities suffered by recent veterans is approaching that of the earlier conflict, according to VA documents.
As of last September, more than 1.6 million military members who’d been deployed in what’s classified as the global war on terror – in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily – had transitioned to veteran status, VA records show. Of those, about 1 million were from active-duty service and about 675,000 from Reserve or guard deployments.
And of those, about 670,000 veterans have been awarded disability status connected to their military service. Another 100,000 have their initial claims pending, according to a November VA analysis.
Those numbers are constantly climbing – and might continue to rise for decades.
According to Linda Bilmes, a Harvard University professor who’s written extensively on the long-term costs of the wars, the ultimate bill for war costs comes due many decades later. As veterans age, their health deteriorates and their disabilities – which might have been manageable early in life – worsen.
In a paper released Thursday, Bilmes notes that the peak year for paying disability compensation to World War I veterans was 1969; the largest expenditures for World War II veterans were in the 1980s.
Today’s veterans are far more likely to put in for benefits than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations were. Beyond that, far more soldiers in this all-volunteer military have been back for two, three, four or five tours, and the long-term impact on hearing and from traumatic brain injuries caused by improvised bombs will be felt for years.
The VA’s disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffer physical or mental injuries during their military service. They range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month. Separate from the disability payments, veterans have access to the VA’s health system, and so far more than 860,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have taken advantage of it.
Among the most pressing – and potentially costly – disabilities is post-traumatic stress disorder, a serious mental ailment that can have a dramatic, ongoing impact on a veteran’s life. As of last year, the VA’s health system had seen more than 270,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for potential PTSD, and the agency’s disability system had awarded PTSD benefits to more than 150,000 of them, according to VA reports.
In her paper, Bilmes says the cost of providing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with disability and medical care and related services will approach $1 trillion; it might top that if the number and complexity of claims continue to exceed estimates.
“Many Americas don’t understand the full cost of war,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “But we have a moral obligation to take care of every veteran who has been injured in war. And when we do that, that is going to be a very, very expensive proposition.”
After grabbing dinner at Hot Dog King, where she has come for 40 years, Lynn Hester talked about her disappointment in Washington while her son-in-law chronicled his year-long struggle to find a permanent job.
“I understand a little bit better what the people during the Great Depression went through trying to find work,” said Jeremy Marks, 34, who had left the Navy after a dozen years. “I decided to get out, like an idiot. I didn’t realize how bad the economy was, because in the military you don’t realize it.”
He put in 200 applications — pizza jobs, forklift jobs, Taco Bell — and faced rejection after rejection before a temp agency finally sent him to a fuel-injector factory that likes to take former service members. They needed someone immediately. He started a week ago.
Assisting veterans in the job hunt: Capt. Michael Bolton heads a program to help other Oklahoma National Guard officers access jobs as they return from deployment. Ironically, his own job as coordinator will end April 1.
By Greg Jaffe, Published: March 19
In TULSA — This is what the end of a decade of war looked like in Oklahoma a few weeks ago: ex-soldiers in cheap new business suits; human resources managers with salesman smiles and stacks of glossy fliers; a former Marine speaking to a television news crew about the “tough times” and “nightmares” he has had since coming home.
Capt. Mike Bolton moved through the hundreds gathered at the convention center with a black binder of 41 résumés. It was yet another veterans’ job fair. How many had he been to since his battalion returned from Afghanistan last spring? Twenty? Thirty? Bolton’s job is to help his fellow Army National Guard soldiers find careers after their combat tours. “If you want bodies,” he tells potential employers over and over, “I am the person you need to call.”
Everyone says they want to hire veterans. Big U.S. firms have pledged through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to hire more than 200,000 over the next five years. Congress has delivered tax credits worth as much as $5,600 to any business willing to hire an unemployed veteran — $9,600 if the vet is disabled.
President Obama has made the moral case. “No one who fights for this country overseas should ever have to fight for a job,” he said as he laid a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery last fall.
Here in Oklahoma, Bolton knows better. When hiring managers flip through his binder of résumés, they aren’t thinking about whether the nation has an obligation to its combat veterans. They are weighing whether they can really afford to take on one more employee in this uncertain economy, whether it makes sense to wait just a few more months.
The questions that consume Bolton, meanwhile, are specific to a population of ex-soldiers struggling with a particular set of postwar problems. How can he help a solid Guard captain with a forgettable résuméshine? How does he find a job for a 35-year-old soldier who can’t remember to pay her electricity bill? What can he do to help a soldier hold on to his job when he says he came home from combat “hating humanity”?
Each of these questions is, in its own way, a legacy of America’s wars.
‘I am going to give you a gift’
At first, Bolton didn’t think it would be hard to find work for Guard soldiers. He knew that the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans was high — 9.4 percent in February, compared with 7.7 percent for the general population, according to the Labor Department. But Oklahoma’s oil and gas sector was booming.
Elsewhere Americans were weary of the wars, but in Oklahoma, support for the 45th Brigade seemed strong. The unit suffered 14 deaths in Afghanistan during a tough stretch of fighting in the fall of 2011. Each of the losses was covered on local television news and mourned in moments of silence at high school football games. When the brigade came home in the spring, cheering, hooting, whistling crowds were there. “I just can’t tell you how proud we are of you,” the governor said.
Eleven months later, the cheering over, the war back to being an afterthought, Bolton invited Capt. Monte Johnson, 35, to lunch to talk about his job search. Johnson was still wearing his black pinstripe suit from a morning hiring fair. He was a solid officer with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In November, his commanders had selected him to lead a 99-soldier artillery battery.
Vets need help marketing skills for civilian jobs
The job market beyond the comfortable confines of the military can be brutal.