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May 26th, 2008
02:25 PM ET

Remembering mental health for vets

 
By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer
 
My father is a World War II vet. As a corpsman in the Pacific campaign, he was in the first Marine battalion to enter the city of Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped.
 

ALT TEXT

Alexander Wadas was one of the first Marines into Nagasaski after the nuclear bombing, but the U.S. government didn't check on his health for 40 years.

To this day, he doesn't talk about it much.

I would imagine the images of such devastation would live with someone forever. Yet, when my dad got back to the states after the war, no one ever asked him about his experience. No one offered any type of counseling or therapy. He returned to his hometown in upstate New York and went on with his life.

It was not until he was in his late 60s that anyone from the government thought to get in contact with him They sent him a questionnaire, asking him what he had experienced after he had been in the first nuclear war zone. Was he suffering from illnesses? Did he have trouble breathing? How much exposure did he have to radioactive chemicals and residue? What were the effects on his health? Did he glow at night? (OK, they didn't ask him that but you get the idea.) Forty years later, the Department of Defense wanted to know. By that time he could have died from all sorts of complications. Luckily, he had not. But who's to say what happened to his comrades?

Thousands of military men and women come home to this country, maimed and scarred, both physically and mentally from the horrors of fighting a war. Although the armed services offers more help to active military now than during my father's time in the service, sadly it is not enough.

Military and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals are overcrowded. Staffing, especially for mental health, is at an all time low. According to the Pentagon there are only 1,431 uniformed mental health professionals in uniform for all the services. The VA offers more therapists, but it's still not enough to provide care for all those who need it. That means many vets must seek private therapy, which can be very expensive. Disability checks often don't even cover their basic health-care needs.

Today, the military is seeking help from the private sector, asking therapists to volunteer an hour of their time to help vets suffering from such mental conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. And therapy is important. If these vets aren’t treated, the VA says, this country could see higher rates of substance abuse, marital problems and suicide in our military. Even though veterans from my father's era are dying and the total number of vets is decreasing, the Department of Defense expects to spend close to $60 billion to compensate wounded soldiers over the next 25 years. Even the presidential candidates have made increasing funding to help the returning vets a campaign priority. Will it be enough? Only time will tell.

Every Memorial Day, my dad goes down to the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., to pay tribute to those friends who fought next to him and died for their country. He's not alone. Around the corner people, of all ages bow their heads and wipe away tears as they read the names on the Vietnam Memorial. And on the opposite side of the grassy Mall, others gaze at the stone soldiers that grace the Korean Memorial. It is important to remember. Yet, as we honor the men and women who died for this country today, let us also think of those who lived and came back home. Shouldn't they be given the same honor and respect we give to those who are no longer with us?

What do you think? Should this country be doing more for the American Vet when it comes to taking care of their health?

We'd like to hear from you.
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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. SR

    Dear Sir:

    My father too is a WWII vet of the South Pacific. Did the war affect him mentally? I would like to say it did, because of the behavior that he exhibited when I was a young child growing up. Unfortunately, too many of my early memories are scarred by incidents of domestic violence and my father's subsequent and frequent incarcerations both at penal and mental institutions. However, I don't think anyone will really be sure.

    May 26, 2008 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. MP

    I agree, America's vets who are alive today and who have served this country proud should be honored just as much as those who met their untimely death. We must honor and support our troops everyday!

    May 26, 2008 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Louise

    My father was a WWII vet of Europe, my brother served in Vietnam as did several cousins and friends. Neither my father or brother talked about their experiences but both of them like their beer. Two cousins and one friend were stationed in the same area of Vietnam and each one of them came back messed up mentally. One killed himself. Had he received counseling, things might have been different. The problem is that asking for help and admitting you have a problem is seen as a sign of weakness so many will not seek help. It may also have an negative impact on their career. The question is, how many of the homeless are veterans who needed counseling but didn't get it?

    May 26, 2008 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. CHERYL FOR HILLARY

    YES!
    I THINK IT IS TERRIBLE THAT THERE ARE A LOT OF VETS THAT NEED MENTAL HEATH COUNSELING OR MEDICAL ATTENTION THAT DO NOT GET IT, OR HAVE TO WAIT SO LONG THAT THEY DIE WAITING!

    THEY ARE QUICK TO SEND THEM, BUT NOT QUICK TO PLAN FOR THEIR RETURN AND NEEDS.
    THIS SHOWS THAT THE VA IS NOT RESPONSIBLE!

    WE NEED A FIGHTER IN THE WHITE HOUSE FOR THESE PEOPLE!
    THERE IS ONLY ONE THAT I WOULD TRUST OR I THINK IS SMART ENOUGH TO DO IT!!!
    HILLARY CLINTON!!!!!!

    May 28, 2008 at 08:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MM

    If we put these men in the line of fire to protect the interests of this country, then this country should consider these men's health (mind and body) an important interest to invest in. We should provide more resources for active duty and veteran's health. But the question is how would we pay for it, considering the financial and economic trouble this country is in?

    May 28, 2008 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sherri

    I think America has been sadly lacking in addressing problems that veterans face upon returning home. My great uncle fought in WW1, my dad in WW2, an uncle in Korea- was wounded and subsequently died from severe alcoholism developed to cope with his service there. One husband did two tours of Viet Nam, the other one tour. They were completely different men after completing their military service. They felt ignored and demeaned when they returned- benefits taken away, viewed as horrible monsters instead of defenders of freedom. Had they been offered help and support- they might have been able to neutralize the demons they harbor. The government and military have been burying their heads in the sand on this issue. They deny that using Napalm and Agent Orange caused cancers and other physical illnesses. They deny that any type of post deployment stress exists. They are very clear- if the military wanted its' members to have families- they would issue them to the member. It's a travesty that the very people who are putting themselves in harms way to protect our way of life are treated with such callousness. Millions of familes have been shattered, children deprived of a parent, or raised in the twilght of flashbacks and paranoiaical behavior. We are now reaping the fruits of such disprespect- generations of people who can't cope, aren't given the tools to pull themselves out of the abyss- and they give up and retreat into a world the rest of us can't inhabit. Who knows what they might have been able to offer- although, given what they have already provided to this nation, they should not have to offer anything more.

    May 28, 2008 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. michael

    I suffer from ptsd it took me 20 years to see that I had it the bad part is you have to trust a doctor at the VA first that not easy most pycs don't stay long and then you have to start over with trust also 99% of the meds the give do not work as to your question I have read it is around 70% and rising

    May 28, 2008 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kathy

    My father was a Veteran of the Korean & Vietnam Wars. The VA REFUSED TO ACCEPT my father as he suffered from symptoms of Guillain Barre Syndrome, caused from exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. I was told that there were no available ICU beds anywhere in the country. He languished being "warehoused" in a hospital in AZ, having been misdiagnosed – Brain Dead by a consulting (pain management) neurologist, unfamiliar with GBS. They pressured me to turn my father's ventilator off. Two months later, my father AWOKE! The hospital and neurologist, obviously panic stricken, then submitted FRAUDULENT medical records (not my father's records) to another neurologist, (for consult), whom never saw my father, (recovering from GBS – communicating with body language and over-breathing his ventilator). He concurred with poor prognosis that pt. was brain dead and could not recover. This letter based on fraudulent medical records was submitted to a judge whom, in a "kangaroo court" proceeding made my father a Ward of the State of AZ and disallowed contact between my father and myself (his only child and next-of-kin). All of my father's rights as a patient, and my rights as his daughter were stripped from us. Helpless and alone, he was "dumped" into a nursing home where 13 days later, he had a respiratory arrest on a ventillator, was transferred to another hospital and suffered a court ordered DEATH. His Death Certificate had a "bogus", fraudulent social security number on it as did all medical records at the last hospital. The many government officials I contacted from the President to John McCain, Sec. of the VA, DID NOTHING! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO A VETERAN AND WHY?????
    My father's autopsy, performed by Dr. Cyril Wecht, shows GUILLAIN BARRE SYNDROME! My life will never be the same!!!!

    May 28, 2008 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. C. A. Dover, NH

    The average American probably does not know just how much US veterans suffer at the hands of the government. I spent several years working as a mental health clinician doing outreach work for the homeless. At least a third of the chronically homeless patients I worked with were veterans of the Vietnam war. These men virtually all suffered from addiction, depression/anxiety/PTSD, medical complications and any number of other ailments plaguing the chronically homeless. Trying to get assistance for veterans was another issue altogether.
    As of several years ago, if a veteran went somewhere for treatment, they would typically be transfered to a VA hospital or outright DENIED treatment because they were already so-called covered/insured by the US government. Most of these veterans couldn't access assistance, typically available for homeless or hardship cases, because of this status. Hospitals with contracts to HMO's, and limited resources for free care, meant these veterans would be treated only for emergency/crisis situations, and not treated for the chronic conditions, such as mental health illness, that contribute heavily to their homelessness. Resources at the VA were scarce back then, with limited numbers of mental health clinicians available. I can only image how much worse it is today.
    I'd like to think things have changed in the five years since I stopped that job, but considering that was prior to and during the early years of the Gulf War, it is probably horrific now. Shame on the US goverment for using its most valuable resources, the men and women fighting for our country, then throwing them away.

    May 29, 2008 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Terry

    My son is an Iraqi Vet, he spent a year in half there out of the four years he was in the Army. I've noticed a marked difference in him in the year he has been home. He can be distant at times, and he is not much of a talker. I know that he had seen some horrendous things in Iraq, and has seen at least two of his buddies killed, and many injured by I.E.D's, not to mention dealing with dead civilians as well as insurgents. I am still trying to imagine how this now 24 yr old man copes, or how any young person can deal with what they have experienced over there. What I do now for sure is that he was the same happy, partying young man while he was on base with his buddies, but after Iraq he doesn't drink hardly at all (which I know is a good thing) but he's also not that happy and social young man that he was before he went there. The only thing he can say to explain this change in him is that he doesn't fit in anymore, and can seem to reconnect with the friends he had in school. He feels as if they've gone on with their lives and he just trying to get his straight. My best description would be that he is haunted and somewhat withdrawn, and as his Mom that really scares me.

    May 29, 2008 at 17:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Dr. Benway

    As a healthcare worker in a VA I can honestly say that the veterans of this country have stellar healthcare when compared to the private sector. We order MRIs like they were a side of fries. We offer services at a fraction of the cost to Vets and their family members. We have outstanding staff who sometimes VOLUNTEER their services. The attitude that VA services are shabby is ludicrous and a production of election year politics. Everyone spins themselves into a frenzy without actually observing the care of these soldiers. These Vets get care that NO ONE outside of the VA system gets unless they have deep pockets. People sometimes stay YEARS in the Brain injury and Spinal cord injury units doing rehab. In the private sector you get less than 2 Months before you are booted by your HMO. The veterans of this country have it GOOD!!! People should investigate before they start spinning yarns about how the veterans are ignored. If anything the VA system should be stripped down and regulated because of the unbelievable cost to the US taxpayer. I would love for some inquisitive jounalist to actually compare the services rendered within and outside of the VA to tell the true story, but unfortunately that sort of thing wouldn't be inflammatory enough. Instead we get "The Veterans are Being Abused". Utterly ridiculous.

    May 30, 2008 at 03:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Franky

    Simple, YES! To me, there's nothing important that one's mental health. To be honest, not just for our Vets but also for athletes who play professional sports here in the states. I am not lying guys but I do believe the mind has many answers that we don't know. Is amazing how mentally the mind works because it works in many different ways. We do need to do a better job not just taking care of our Vets but for others as well. I believe is also dangerous if you don't.........I wish people do take it seriously.......

    And do you know what astonishes me??? Is the fact that our Vets may need it the most. Listen guys, I have seen stuff in my life that I don't know people wanna see. When the mind gets expose to the simuli that surrounds us(especially the times that we are in), it no doubt has a profound affect..........

    May 31, 2008 at 21:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Gary Cox

    I am looking for help for an Iraq war vet who came home mentally wounded and three years later has not received the focused help she needs to get better. In fact she is worse and on Thurs. tried to end her life. She resides in Kansas. The Army is no help. After several diagnosis by several Dr.s that she has PTSD, her newest Dr. informed her that she didn't have PTSD, she was bi-polar. He made this diagnosis after one ten minute conversation with her. She tried to end it all the next day.I am looking for help in finding meaningful help for this hero who can't find her way back to the person she was before she put it all on the line for her country. Pleae help me find a life line for this wounded vet.

    June 7, 2008 at 09:13 | Report abuse | Reply

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