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Families blame vet suicides on lack of VA care

/ Source: The Associated Press

In the three months after Marine Maj. John Ruocco returned from Iraq feeling numb and depressed, he couldn’t sleep. He had lost weight. He had nightmares. He was distracted and withdrawn from his two young sons.

One night, he promised his wife, Kim, that he would get help. The next morning, he was dead. The 40-year-old Cobra helicopter pilot, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., had hanged himself.

There are others. Army reservist Joshua Omvig. Army Capt. Michael Pelkey. Marines Jonathan Schulze and Jeffrey Lucey. Each came home from tours in Iraq and committed suicide.

Veterans’ groups and families who have lost loved ones say the number of troops struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues is on the increase and not enough help is being provided by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department.

For some, there are long waits for appointments at the VA or at military posts. For others, the stigma of a mental health disorder keeps them from seeking help.

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says that although suicides among troops returning from the war is a significant problem, the scope is unknown.

“The problem that we face right now is that there’s no method to track veterans coming home,” said Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq as a platoon leader in the first year of the war. “There’s no system. There’s no national registry.”

“We don’t keep that data,” said Karen Fedele, a VA spokeswoman in Washington. “I’m told that somebody here is going to do an analysis, but there just is nothing right now.”

The Defense Department does track suicides, but only among troops in combat operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan and in surrounding areas. Since the war started four years ago, 107 suicides during Iraq operations have been recorded by the Defense Manpower Data Center, which collects data for the Pentagon. That number, however, usually does not include troops who return home from the war zone and then take their lives.

‘We're trying to reach out’

For service members returning from combat, post-deployment health assessments include a questionnaire with queries about mental health. This year, the Pentagon expanded health monitoring for war veterans to include another screening three to six months after combat.

“We’re trying to reach out,” said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army’s acting surgeon general. “Will we get to everyone on time? No, I wish we could.”

Pollock said the Army is expanding a program started in January at Fort Bragg, N.C., which aims to lessen the stigma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. It brings behavioral health staff directly into primary care clinics instead of making soldiers go to a separate mental health facility for help.

Earlier this month, a Pentagon task force warned that the military health care system is overburdened and not sufficient to meet the needs of troops suffering from PTSD and other psychological problems. The panel called for a fundamental shift in treatment to focus on screening and prevention instead of relying on troops to come forward on their own.

Shortcomings identified

Shortcomings in mental health care were also identified in a recent report by the VA’s inspector general. It found that several of the agency’s hospitals and clinics lacked properly trained workers and had inadequate screening for mental health problems. It said this put Iraq veterans at increased risk of suicide.

Floyd “Shad” Meshad, president and founder of the California-based National Veterans Foundation, has no doubt that military suicides are a growing problem. He said he receives 2 to 3 calls each week from Iraq veterans contemplating suicide — or from their families.

A Vietnam veteran who has counseled other vets for more than 30 years, Meshad runs a toll-free support line based in Los Angeles. He was asked recently to help train counselors at the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, where a spike in calls from veterans has been reported.

One of the biggest challenges for troubled vets is the stigma of a mental health disorder, said Meshad. “It’s very, very hard for you to reach out and say ’I’m hurting.’ It’s hard for men to do it, but particularly (for) a soldier who’s endured life and death situations.”

Kim Ruocco of Newbury, Mass., said her husband, John, was a role model for the young Marines he led in war. He worried about the ramifications of seeking help, personally and professionally.

“He felt like that was the end of everything for him,” Kim Ruocco recalls. “He felt like his Marines would, you know, be let down.”

Ruocco ended his life in February 2005, a few weeks before he was to redeploy to Iraq.

His parents, Ellen and Randy Omvig, say Joshua wouldn’t talk much about Iraq. They tried to get him help, but he worried that it would hurt his career if the Army found out, said his father.

Randy Omvig says the military and VA need to offer better readjustment counseling. There should be teams of health professionals, he said, who come to the base to talk to the troops in a comfortable setting with their comrades.

“It’s like you and I going out on that interstate and driving 65 miles an hour and then all of a sudden deciding to put it in first gear,” Omvig said. “What happens? Does the car handle it very well? Some will handle it, a lot of them are going to have problems.”

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is considering a bill named for Joshua Omvig. It directs the VA to develop a suicide prevention program for veterans suffering from PTSD and other depression issues. It unanimously passed the House in March.

The VA declined to comment about the bill or its requirements.

Too long of a wait

For some troops returning from Iraq, the wait for care is too long.

Army Capt. Michael Pelkey, who suffered from night sweats, anxiety, headaches and exhaustion when he returned, sought help at Fort Sill, Okla. His wife, Stefanie, said the mental health facility there was understaffed and Michael was told he’d have to wait up to two months for an appointment.

He went off-base in Nov. 2004 and a civilian counselor diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. His wife says it came too late. He shot himself in the living room a week later.

Jonathan Schulze of New Prague, Minn., also tried to get help after he came home from Iraq. His parents say he asked to be admitted to a VA hospital but was turned away twice. The VA disputes that. The Marine hanged himself in January at the age of 25.

For Marine Jeffrey Lucey, the return home from Iraq was followed by months of emotional and mental torment, said his father, Kevin Lucey. The 23-year-old killed himself in June 2004 at his parents’ home in Belchertown, Mass. His father found him dead in the basement, hanging by a garden hose.

There are more. Robert Decouteaux, Douglas Barber, William Howell, Andre McDaniel, Jeremy Wilson, Robert Hunt, Chris Dana and David Guindon — all men who served in the Iraq war and killed themselves after coming home.

Veterans groups worry there will be more given the rise in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Increase in PTSD claims

PTSD disability claims to the VA increased almost 80 percent over five years — from 120,265 in 1999 to 215,871 in 2004. Benefit payments jumped nearly 150 percent, from $1.72 billion to $4.28 billion in the same period, according to a report this month from a committee of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

Marine Cpl. Cloy Richards says he experienced symptoms of PTSD after two tours in Iraq. “I was depressed all the time. I just hated myself,” he recalled.

He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t want to be around other people. One day, he said, he put a gun in his mouth and then decided to call his mom to say goodbye. She talked him down.

Richards, 23, said he had trouble getting appointments at his local VA in Missouri, but eventually received counseling from a Vietnam veteran who taught him how to better cope with his anger and anxiety. Richards has become an outspoken critic of the war, joining Iraq Veterans Against the War.

He wants to be happy, he says, but still feels troubled.

“My counselor says that comes from guilt,” Richards said. “I feel guilty about being happy since, you know, some of my friends died in Iraq and I’m alive.”