We Are Still Failing to Prepare and Care for Veterans

  • Kristina Evans
  • Jan 9, 2017 4:27PM

By now, we have all heard some of the emerging details regarding the arrest of Esteban Santiago, the former member of the National Guard who was the center of the shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale International airport last week. Combine this with the murder-suicide of Lionel Desmond and his family in Nova Scotia, and it’s been a pretty rough week for veterans.

Then again, it’s always rough for veterans.

In these two most recent incidents, media left, right, and center have been discussing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and rightfully so. Canadian veteran Desmond was formally diagnosed with PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan in 2007. He received treatment from the military, but it remains unclear what level of care- if any- was provided by the health care system after he left the armed forces in 2015.

Last month, he apologized on Facebook in a post, stating that, “I’m truly sorry for freaking out at my wife/daughter, and people who know me...I’m not getting a lawyer. I’m getting my life back. I apologize for anything out (of) my control. I will fix it, if not I’ll live with it.” He continues on, detailing how he had hit his head on a light-armoured vehicle and suffered back spasms after falling off a wall while in the Forces, and had been told he now had post-concussion disorder as well as PTSD. “That (explains) my jealousy towards my wife and being over-controlling and (my) vulgar tongue towards my family,” he wrote, mentioning that he also had ADD/ADHD from thrashing his head. Doctors told him he should seek neurological help in Halifax.

Desmond even went a step further. Rev. Elaine Walcott, a relative of Desmond, said Thursday that he had gotten treatment last year in Montreal but was looking for more help.

He recently tried to check himself into a mental health unit at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish but was turned away. A few days later, he was found dead in his home with a self-inflicted gunshot wound alongside his wife, daughter, and his mother- all of whom died from gunshot wounds.

His story is reminiscent of Santiago, the Iraq war veteran charged with killing five airline passengers and injuring six others in the shooting on Friday. Different circumstances, but the same attempt to reach out for help. Due to appear in federal court again Monday, the 26-year-old had a history of erratic behavior. An aunt told MSNBC that Santiago returned from service “a different person” after his 10-month deployment in Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard.

Marlin Ritzman, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Anchorage, confirmed that Santiago walked into their office in November and complained that he was hearing voices, and that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency. Even more disturbing, he left his newborn child outside in his car in freezing Alaskan temperatures while meeting with the FBI officials. He had left his handgun in the car, and agents discovered the child when they went to retrieve it. Santiago’s girlfriend was contacted to pick up the child, and Santiago was turned over to local police, who took him to a medical facility for a mental evaluation. The gun was returned to him early last month though, because Santiago had not been judged to be mentally ill. The Associated Press reported that he was held and evaluated for only four days of treatment before being released without medication or follow-up therapy.

“They had him hospitalized for four days, and then they let him go,” Bryan Santigo, the accused’s brother told CNN. “How are you going to let someone leave a psychological centre after four days when he is saying that he is hearing voices?”

Obviously, they were wrong. However, experts believe Santiago was exhibiting classic signs of schizophrenia. “The delusions, the hallucinations are for more consistent with psychosis than PTSD,” said Dr. Donald C. Goff, a psychiatrist at New York University and a leading expert on schizophrenia.

Veterans have long struggled with the reputation for being dangerously unstable, since at least the Vietnam War. With Hollywood narratives like Rambo, the stigma permeated society until 83% of the population reported believing that veterans were more likely to have mental health problems, be unemployed and more likely to be abusing drugs. Run by Got Your 6, a nonprofit group that tracks public image of veterans, the survey illustrates how a large part of the population sees veterans as broken.

It’s also an accepted fact that we don’t do nearly enough to help our veterans when they come home. Although the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) offers a pretty, easy-to-navigate website outlining what health care, benefits, and other resources are available to former soldiers, almost half of the 2.7 million troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan report difficulties on their return home, and many receive inadequate care according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report. The US has already spent $160.4 billion providing medical care and disability benefits, but the commitment to veterans continues long after the war ends. Historically, the cost of caring for war veterans rises for decades and peaks 30-40 years after a conflict. There have been at least 19 deaths of veterans due to delays in medical screenings and treatments, with as many as 7,000 veterans on a backlog list. A study conducted for and published by the Psychiatric Services found that 52% of the 2,861 veterans involved had received outpatient care from VA mental health clinics, with the conclusion that many people who leave the military because of serious mental illness do not receive aftercare from the VA.

“Although several federal agencies are actively trying to address the support needs of current and former service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as their families, the response has been slow and has not matched the magnitude of this population’s requirements,” said George Rutherford, chair of IOM’s committee on the assessment of readjustment needs of military personnel, veterans, and their families.

What’s even worse is that very little preparation or training has been provided to our military, despite the long history of psychological screening programs for American soldiers. Since the first world war, attempts to screen troops before deployment have been used to protect soldiers from developing psychiatric or behavioral problems in the field or when they return home. Soldiers whose answers to pre-screenings raised flags were further analyzed by a mental-health expert before being cleared for, or prohibited from, duty. Although variables such as intelligence have been shown to predict success in training, none of these tests have been able to accurately assess psychological vulnerability according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Screening.

Despite the new mental health screening bill passed in May 2014, it doesn’t appear that there is enough support or preparation for new recruits regarding the mental impact deployment can have on them. The connection between mental disorders and military base shootings is more unclear, but experts said Spc. Ivan Lopez, who killed three and wounded 16 at Fort Hood in April before turning the weapon on himself, fit the psychological profile of a rampage shooter. Aaron Alexis, the former sailor and defense contractor who shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in D.C. last year, was thought to have mental health problems not caught by the military.

Basic training overviews rarely include mental health training. Vigorous and physically exhausting, Army training does little to discuss the long-term impacts deployment can have on troops. This could be linked to the stigma associated with mental health issues, but it is still unacceptable. As Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire wrote in his last book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD:

“The brain is as vital to life as any organ in the human body. To treat an injury to the brain as less urgent, less in need of care and compassion than other, more obvious types of injury is misguided and ignorant. Our efforts to treat our veterans with PTSD must be comparable to our efforts to repair damaged hearts, provide timely kidney transplants, avoid amputations or restore eyesight. … Only when we truly understand the injury and take action to mitigate its impact will we be able to say that we recognize the real costs of peacekeeping, peacemaking and war.”

There’s no shame in getting help. Making sure the men and women who put their lives on the line overseas to protect our rights and freedoms get the support they need should be first and foremost. Unfortunately, it’s not. We can outfit them with the best armor, vehicles, and weaponry, but we need to start equipping them with the proper tools to handle the mental strains of our military. With a new government coming into power, we need to ensure changes are made to stop failing our military and veterans.