Chronic post-service mental health problems like PTSD are injurious, disabling, and represent a significant public health problem. According to the Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, US Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) states, "We now have more soldiers that have died by suicide than in conflict."
I am just one spouse of many, all caregivers of severely injured and disabled veterans, who have wished to be heard on behalf of our loved ones. Thankfully, our time seems to have come, at least for some of us.
Earlier this month, the Veterans Administration Central Offices, Department of Mental Health Operations were quietly reaching out to caregivers like myself to request our feedback regarding gaps within the VA's mental health care system.
This action from the VA comes on the heels of two key events:
- The suicide of a US Army Ranger facing his ninth tour of duty:
- The testimony before the US Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs by Andrea Sawyer, wife and caregiver of a 100% service-connected disabled veteran. In her testimony, she shared some startling information about the VA Mental Health Care Policy:
The fact that a policy aimed at setting basic standards of access and timeliness in VA mental health care has yet to be fully implemented - four years after the policy is set - has profound ramifications for warriors struggling with war-related mental health problems, and who face barriers to needed VA treatment.
On August 4, 2011, Dr. Mary Schohn, the Acting Director of VA Office of Mental Health Operations, requested my assistance along with a number of other caretakers of severely-disabled veterans. In their email, they said:
We are wanting to get a sense of the issues so that we can begin to develop a plan to address them and improve access and mental health service delivery.
The fact they opened up the discussion was a tremendous step in the right direction. Up until now, veterans and their caretakers' pleas for help seemed to be falling on deaf ears. To my surprise, they gave me more than an hour of their time to voice my concerns; not just for us, but for everyone like us.
The next day, I received a phone call that I always dread because it happens all too often: A military wife found her husband after he overdosed on prescription medications.
Not surprisingly, most spouses wish to remain anonymous in their pleas for help. The wife referenced above asked me to share her story with the public. She was able to put the words of every wife who has never been heard, asking the same pleas, into tangible terms that everyone can understand.
A few weeks ago, he overdosed on prescription pills. I found him, bile and foam around his mouth, unable to wake up. I'm not the brave one here -- I was so scared. After hundreds of days of deployment, thinking that I was going to lose him, that he would never come home to me, and there he was, dying on our living room floor, our dogs howling... our beautiful, beautiful child asleep down the hall.
I did everything right. I called the ambulance and made arrangements for child care. I had to send him to a civilian hospital, because the nearest VA is an hour away, and he wouldn't have made it. I spoke with the doctors and the nurses, explained how to handle his post-combat issues and telling them everything I knew about his drug abuse. I asked them for help.
"He's the VA's problem," they said.
She goes on to explain:
Despite how alone I feel, there are so many thousands of spouses going through this exact battle. I could leave him to deal with this on his own, take our child and run from all this and start over. Many, many military wives give up and leave, to spare themselves and their children this pain. But I won't leave this hell, not until my husband and I leave it together. I will not let him become one of tomorrow's daily Reserve Component suicides, one of the hundreds that kill themselves rather than face civilian life post-combat. I had to let him go before, to fight his battles without me. Not this time.
He is a person who is asking for the help that he was promised when he enlisted. He doesn't want money or pity. He wants peace. We provide intensive psychological care for rapists and murderers, all paid for by the citizens of this country. Why can't my husband have that? Why are criminals more worthy than he? Why can't you give him more than some handouts and a urinalysis?
She brings her plea to a final point:
We can't do this alone, and our family is falling apart. We don't need you to babysit him during the day. We need you to rehabilitate him, help him get better. Your entire purpose is to serve those who have served. He gave you his all, and would have given you his life. Tell me, isn't that worth your best efforts to save his?