Sunday, June 17, 2007
Returning Veterans Caught in Bureaucratic Jungle
The Ugly, Depressing Truth Behind the Praise for the Troops
Army Spec. Jeans Cruz helped capture Saddam Hussein. When he came home to the Bronx, important people called him a war hero and promised to help him start a new life. The mayor of New York, officials of his parents' home town in Puerto Rico, the borough president and other local dignitaries honored him with plaques and silk parade sashes. They handed him their business cards and urged him to phone.
But a "black shadow" had followed Cruz home from Iraq, he confided to an Army counselor. He was hounded by recurring images of how war really was for him: not the triumphant scene of Hussein in handcuffs, but visions of dead Iraqi children.
In public, the former Army scout stood tall for the cameras and marched in the parades. In private, he slashed his forearms to provoke the pain and adrenaline of combat. He heard voices and smelled stale blood. Soon the offers of help evaporated and he found himself estranged and alone, struggling with financial collapse and a darkening depression.
Veterans Affairs will spend $2.8 billion this year on mental health. But the best it could offer Cruz was group therapy at the Bronx VA medical center. Not a single session is held on the weekends or late enough at night for him to attend. At age 25, Cruz is barely keeping his life together. He supports his disabled parents and 4-year-old son and cannot afford to take time off from his job repairing boilers. The rough, dirty work, with its heat and loud noises, gives him panic attacks and flesh burns but puts $96 in his pocket each day.
Once celebrated by his government, Cruz feels defeated by its bureaucracy. He no longer has the stamina to appeal the VA decision, or to make the Army correct the sloppy errors in his medical records or amend his personnel file so it actually lists his combat awards.
By this spring, the number of vets from Afghanistan and Iraq who had sought help for post-traumatic stress would fill four Army divisions, some 45,000 in all.
They occupy every rank, uniform and corner of the country. People such as Army Lt. Sylvia Blackwood, who was admitted to a locked-down psychiatric ward in Washington after trying to hide her distress for a year and a half ; and Army Pfc. Joshua Calloway, who spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and left barely changed from when he arrived from Iraq in handcuffs; and retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jim Roberts, who struggles to keep his sanity in suburban New York with the help of once-a-week therapy and a medicine cabinet full of prescription drugs; and the scores of Marines in California who were denied treatment for PTSD because the head psychiatrist on their base thought the diagnosis was overused.
They represent the first wave in what experts say is a coming deluge.
As many as one-quarter of all soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq are psychologically wounded, according to a recent American Psychological Association report. Twenty percent of the soldiers in Iraq screened positive for anxiety, depression and acute stress, an Army study found.
But numbers are only part of the problem. The Institute of Medicine reported last month that Veterans Affairs' methods for deciding compensation for PTSD and other emotional disorders had little basis in science and that the evaluation process varied greatly. And as they try to work their way through a confounding disability process, already-troubled vets enter a VA system that chronically loses records and sags with a backlog of 400,000 claims of all kinds.