What It Means to be a Veteran

marines-3695500_1280Being a military veteran means you sacrificed a number of years of your life for the privilege of obeying orders from those of higher rank than you. It meant performing seemingly endless numbers of push-ups and sit-ups or hiking countless miles while wearing a too heavy rucksack. It meant drills (and/or grass drills); shooting ranges, GI parties (party favors for those were sponges, brooms and mops), and of course field trips (more times than not, in the rain or cold). It meant mind-numbing hours on guard duty or kitchen patrol. If you had managed to earn yourself extra duty; by breaking one or more of the numerous regulations, then you had up to 22 hours a day of the same mind numbing work, followed by a ‘generous’ 2 hours of sleep. Then you did it all again the next day.

Being a U.S. military veteran also means you were willing to fight and die in service to this country. It meant being separated from friends, family and loved ones. It meant giving up control of your life to others and having to trust your well-being to them. It meant risking life and limb and potential (permanent) injury, either to complete a mission, help your buddies fighting alongside you or just in doing what you were supposed to do. It meant you took an oath to ‘Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States’… and lived up to your part of the bargain. Since there is no longer a military draft in this country, it meant you voluntarily signed up.

Why in the hell would you or anyone volunteer for this?

Was it a deep desire to serve your country? Or was it for the benefits you were promised such as furthering or continuing your education? Maybe it was learning something new, that sounded interesting to you? Or maybe (like me) you saw no better options in your life at the time. Possibly you were done with school, or dropped out; maybe you were unemployed and the idea of free food, housing and a steady paycheck were too tempting? Probably it was all or most of these along with the promises from your recruiter which made it sound even better. Were you talked into becoming a technician, plotting safe routes or supply lines in and out for the troops? Or a pilot? Maybe you were a combat cook, figuring out how to feed your troops with dwindling supplies? Maybe you were ‘just’ a grunt. Or any one of the hundreds of other jobs, thinking you would be better off after your service, when you discharged.

Were you thinking the same way as you huddled down in your foxhole with your head between your knees, hearing the impact of bullets, or the explosions going off all around? When the overwhelming smells of blood, piss, smoke and yes fear almost knocked you out. Were your thoughts still on what you were going to do when you got out, or were they closer to if you got out of there alive? What were you thinking as you heard screams and prayers coming from the foxholes around you?
It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter, as long as you served and served with honor. Every military job has it’s risks. What ever the reason; whatever military job you had and whether or not you served on active duty or as a reservist, whether or not you saw or were involved in any actual combat, you could have and that is what counts. As a Vietnam veteran once said, “you had your ass on the line”. Again, that is what counts. You are a military veteran, you served with honor and yes you do expect certain things for it, from your government and/or the people you helped and/or served, or just from your fellow citizens. That bargain you upheld from when you took ‘The Oath’ to when you received your honorable discharge, came with expectations by you also. In the book “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein, only military veterans had earned the right to vote. As a U.S. military veteran you are not asking for that or any additional rights, but:

You expect to be respected. You don’t need to be saluted or ‘thanked for your service’ all the time, but maybe it’s nice to hear on Veteran’s or Memorial Day.
You expect your veteran status to look good on a resume or application. Yes, you want to be hired or accepted based on your qualifications, but being a veteran should help, not hurt in that.
You expect help if and when you need it. You helped enough people during your service (your entire country and maybe other ones as well).

Not everything in life goes perfectly or according to plan. Did your plans include marriage or starting and raising a family? Use your VA home loan to buy a house? Were you going to get that college degree and then start your chosen career? Or put the skills you learned in the military to use? Did your marriage fall apart or the career you envisioned never come to pass? Or possibly the injuries or trauma you experienced (mental or physical) catch up with you and prevent you from achieving your goals. Where did you turn for help? Friends, family or a ‘grateful’ government? Too many veterans either didn’t have these options or the help wasn’t enough and they ended up poor, hurt or for some, hungry and homeless.

That shouldn’t happen but it does! The biggest problem with not getting help is that there are so many that need help, way too many. Yes there are a lot of generous people and organizations that try; but there are never enough of them, and/or never enough money for those that need. Yes, the Government tries to help; and there are lots of dedicated government employees who try to (believe it or not), but whether it is red tape, inefficiency or lack of funding or any of myriad other reasons, government help cannot always be counted on. Too many veterans are still on the street or hurting, any help from any people or organizations is always appreciated.

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author

What It’s Like To Be Homeless

people-850097_1280“Get a job, you bum”!
I slowly open my eyes, hearing a voice and those unkind words in my ears. Not anything I haven’t heard before. What I see is a suit, dark and cheap. Kind of like the ones I used to wear, when I had a job and a life. A face above the suit, nothing remarkable about it, except for the spittle forming at a corner of the mouth. Striped tie hanging down, almost touching my face. I look down along my prone body and see his leg moving back, as if to send send a kick my way. Perhaps to emphasize my ‘bumness’? I move a corner of the blanket I’m under (stolen, I mean donated from a ‘Goodwill’ box), just enough for him to see the switchblade in my hand. Wow, what fast reflexes he has! He is already moving away almost before I can cover up again. But not before I see the anger in his eyes; anger and disgust, that I dare to take up sidewalk space where he has to walk. Another day on the street begins.

I sit up and quickly scan around me, as a soldier might upon hearing a sudden noise. No cops around to try chasing me off before I can gather my things. Shoes still on my feet, blanket untouched. Backpack/pillow unopened; so far so good, looks like I still have all my ‘stuff’. It all does need washing however, so do I. When I can smell myself, I know it’s bad. Yes, reeking might be a better word. It explains how people smell me and wrinkle their noses in disgust even before they see me. Then the reactions get even worse. When I recover from my own stench, faces almost come into view. Nothing out of the ordinary, just random eyes and faces either looking or trying to not be caught looking at me. I hardly recognize faces anymore, too many go by to be anything but a blur. Well I do recognize the cops that usually chase me off, but have enough pity on me to let me move just out of their sight. I also (usually) recognize the one or two people that will put some coins or even a couple of dollars (breakfast!) in my gloved hand. No such luck in that way today, but nothing is missing either. In more good news, it’s not raining and I’m not freezing. Time to get moving and get going, somewhere.

First of course I think about what brought me to this living on the street; no home, family, job or money. For me it was …[Fill in the real stupid reason you ruined your entire life, here]…
Some suggestions: Cheated on spouse/drugs/drinking/stole from work/robbed someone or someplace/drove drunk and hurt or killed someone/hurt a child, well you get the idea. Or get creative and come up with something of your own. Whatever it is, someone has probably done it. Or just maybe it was something done to you, like being a casualty of military service. Or you just didn’t receive the help you needed when you needed it.Yes I am still to this day surprised and saddened at how I ended up like this. Every homeless person thought the same as I did at some point, that things would just work out. They always had. Until they didn’t.

I sling my backpack on and start walking (maybe trudging is more like it? I do have pain in my legs and everywhere else, the price of having a cement bed). I keep my clothes and myself as clean as possible, thanks to the kindness of priests at a nearby church. They let me wash my clothes and myself in their private area inside. As long as I don’t do it more than once or twice a week, the church doesn’t want me becoming a magnet for other homeless. I might not agree with that, but I can understand. I am in no position to argue it anyway. All I have to do is promise to attend services more often, which I do of course. I mean I promise to. The church does sound like a good place to start my busy (yea right) day.
I see a newspaper on top of a garbage can and grab it. Wow, I think it’s from today. I’m never sure what day it actually is, I never need to, but let’s see what’s happening in the world without me. Murders; wars, arrests and politicians making promises. Some things never change. Oh wait, the local team won, that’s different. I sit down on a bench near the church and against my better judgment glance at the ‘Help Wanted’ ads. I don’t expect to find anything, but I have to look, it’s a compulsion. Even though I can’t, I just can’t get my hopes up about anything. It hurts too much after. Hope is one of the many things I can no longer afford. Despite my reluctance, an ad actually catches my eye. It’s for a start-up in the field I used to work. Experience preferred; which I have, open interviews, and it’s only about a mile or so from here! The thoughts swarm (slowly at first, the only thoughts I have had for a while are about food and survival, but quickly gain speed and traction in my head); “what if, what if I actually got a job, this job! What if I could have a life again, a place to live with a roof and a refrigerator? And a bathroom of course”! Oh and keys. [Pop Quiz: how can you tell if you are in jail or homeless? Answer: you don’t have a key that opens anything. I no longer have any keys]. What if…what if… then I look at myself and realize what am I thinking? How am I going to get this or any job? How do I fill out an application with no address, no phone # and no references? With no way of proving I know the work? The next thought is how can I not try? The thought after is in the voice of an old drill sergeant “There you go thinking again”.

I rush into the church and my luck is holding out. I run (stumble?) my way to the priest by the alter and show him the help wanted ad. We talk and he convinces me, and/or I convince myself to go to the interview. He writes down a phone # I can say is mine, then we then say a prayer for my success. I know he is a good man who wants me to get a job and a life again but; I do wonder though if deep down he is praying for me to succeed, so there is one less homeless hanging around. I shave with an old razor and sponge bath in a bathroom sink. After my stomach growls loud enough to be heard, I eat a couple of pieces of bread I am offered, along with a glass of water. I don’t think it was communion bread, but that couldn’t hurt if it was, right? I pull a pair of slacks and a collared shirt out that were buried in my backpack, not too badly wrinkled. I don’t even remember where I got these from. Then the priest comes out with gifts, a tie and a pair of shoes that are just a little big on me (they might have belonged to him, ‘God bless him’). Believe me, too big is a lot better than too small. After I dress, I don’t even recognize myself. That can’t be a bad thing. A final quick prayer and a final “God Bless” and I am on my way to destiny, I hope (uh oh, there’s that word again, hope).

My luck is still holding out, (although I know at some time there will be a price to pay for all this ‘good luck’) it’s not raining. I know where the place is and the walk is not bad at all. I almost feel ‘normal’ and I’m almost smiling. Now I am at the place and handed a clipboard, pen and an application. I look around at all the other hopefuls, I don’t think I look too much worse than them. I fill out the application with the name on the ID (that has a pasted picture of me) and matching social security card I got from somewhere. I put down the phone # the priest gave me as well as an old address I used to live at. I finish and hand it back to the receptionist, who actually smiles at me! I then dash into the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror, thinking of all the ways I could improve myself. I haven’t even finished this list in my head when my ‘name’ is called.

I actually remember how this goes, shake hands with the ‘younger than me’ interviewer and exchange ‘how are you’s’. Then the usual questions; which I have no trouble answering, even surprising myself (I had been told many times I should have been a sales person). Then the question came I had been dreading; “Why are you no longer employed at your last job”? The bull**** I came up with was that did not leave on the best of terms as I had quit to start my own similar business, which my former employer didn’t appreciate. Therefore they may not be ‘honest’ if asked about my work there. I then had to say that my business was not successful. This line actually seemed to work, somehow. Then the interview was over; we shook hands and again I actually received a smile, while being told that I should get a call from them in a couple of days. I think I may have even smiled back! I walked out smiling at the receptionist, trying but failing to not deceive myself into thinking that I could actually have a chance at getting the job. I’m surprised my mouth doesn’t hurt from all the smiling.

The next day was pouring rain, so I stayed huddled in my sleeping bag, only interrupted by the quick runs to snatch some food. As the interviewer had said they would call me in ‘a couple of days’ and having had better dreams than usual, I went back to the church two days later to find out if the company had called. The priest saw me and ran over. “Where have you been? The company called you later that day, they wanted to talk to you again”! “They must have really liked you”. He then dragged me inside to a room where I could have some privacy and handed me a phone, “Call them”! So I did. My heart sank and my head exploded as the voice on the other end told me how impressed they had been with me and that they had wanted to talk to me soon as they could. But when they didn’t hear from me, they had to offer the position to someone else. They would of course keep my application on file. Somehow I managed to not throw the phone against a wall, but I did rush out of there before I could do something not nice in a place where one should not do not nice things.

I managed to go to sleep that night on my concrete bed (with one eye open of course) , almost hoping someone would try something with me so I could hit them. I knew… I knew… I just knew to not get my hopes up and that bad luck or just my luck would strike. I still don’t know how I slept with all the self-recriminations running through my mind. But I did. Then I woke up to an all too familiar refrain in my ears:
“Get a job you bum”!
My hand tightened around my switchblade under the blanket and all I could think was:
“Why do I have a sudden urge to kill him”?

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author

Why Are There Homeless Veterans?

homeless-844213_1920It is estimated that on any given night in the U.S. over 40,000 veterans are homeless and living in the street or shelters (source: Google). The actual number is going to be higher than that, probably a lot higher. Yes, you’re right, no one should be homeless, veteran or not. Realistically, homes won’t be found for all that need them. That doesn’t mean to stop trying. A lot of people are of the opinion that if someone is homeless, it is because of something they did or didn’t do. Maybe they were just too lazy to get a job and would rather live off of government handouts or begging from hard working people. Maybe they have mental or physical disabilities and didn’t try to get help or try to overcome them. It could be the result of too many other possible reasons. Maybe, just maybe, their situation wasn’t caused by them or them alone. Or it might have been. Does that mean stop trying to help? No, can’t do that. No one deserves to be homeless, whatever the reason. Especially not the military veteran.

Think about it. Our military has freed countries from either dictators or religious jihads (especially in the last couple of decades). Lives were lost or troops came home with permanent injuries or disabilities. They did this is the name of democracy. Afterwards, people in those countries were able to start (or try to start) living normal lives after years of suffering. (I could describe some of the ways people were brutalized or mistreated, but that is not the point of this article). At the least they now have a taste of freedom and can hope to be able to live peacefully. Yes, I know this is still an ongoing process in most of these places, but it is more than they had before. Our troops are heroes for what they have been able to accomplish. Then they come home.

For most, finally coming home to the people that love them; whether it was after a deployment, discharge or retiring from the service, is a happy and joyous occasion. After months or even years of being separated; (which can be as stressful to those left behind as to the deployed person), they can enjoy one another again without worry (for the most part). Simple pleasures and even doing chores become reminders that there is a life besides the military. Home cooked meals will never have tasted better. Spending time with friends, family and all those that you missed while over there just might be the best part of all. That is of course, if you had anyone in your life to come home to.

But…(you knew that ‘but’ was coming) many, if not most or even all of our returning veterans come home changed in some way. Some don’t come home with all their body parts still attached. Others will have lost one or more of their senses (blind or deaf for example). Obvious physical disabilities like those are easy to diagnose and the veteran will usually receive as much help as can be given. Prosthetic limbs, mobility devices and/or support and training for adjusting to newfound conditions are offered and for the most part received. That support will also include financial assistance (such as VA disability).

What can be worse are the mental disorders. The trauma of not being the same as before you left and doubting you are or will ever be able to love and support those you love as you did. The mental scarring of experiences you went through or the inability to understand or describe how these affected you make mental disorders much harder to diagnose and or treat (if they can be treated at all). What if you were one of those returning veterans and you couldn’t find the proper words to describe to the psychiatrist or therapist how you woke up in a cold sweat one night, to realize you had your hands around your spouse’s throat? Or could it have been the fear of recrimination that kept you from mentioning that or anything similar in the first place. Possibly it was just the overwhelming sense of guilt that you came home alive, while so many others came home in body bags.

Any or all of those conditions or disabilities could keep you from realizing your dream of a normal life, with a steady income; a roof over your head, food on your table and maybe a car in the garage (for starters). What happens if there are no available jobs or jobs that will accommodate your disabilities? What are your options (as say a 21 year old who never had a credit card) when your dream of owning a home is shot down when your application for a VA home loan is denied for poor or no credit or not enough income? Yes, a VA home loan is guaranteed, but there is no guarantee you will qualify for it. What will you do when you are turned down for VA or SS disability? What if coming home to your family wasn’t quite the happy occasion you thought it would be?

After all you have gone through to serve your country and the suffering you may be going through, what happens when you find yourself with no income and no options? How will you feel when you have no job, no one supportive in your life and no home? When your bed is made of cement and trash, the label on most of your clothes say “Hefty” and your transportation are your feet and a shopping cart? How will you feel while thinking about how the people in those countries you fought for are living better than you do?

You feel … Betrayed! Is that a strong word to use? Yes it is! But how else can you feel when you have nothing and in your mind, you have become nothing. When you were willing to sacrifice mind, body and soul, but have nothing to show for it except mental or physical disorders or disabilities? When you expected promises made to you in return for your service to be kept. If you got anything at all, it was empty excuses and emptier promises. Instead of getting the help you needed you were shoved aside and literally and actually pushed out into the street. When the only words you hear now are ‘bum, psycho or addict? How else could you feel?


That is why any and all organizations to help veterans are needed! To correct the wrongs done to theses courageous men and women and help them get their lives back on track. To feed, clothe and shelter them and give them whatever other help they need. They have earned these things and are owed the ability to live the way every one else expects to, at a minimum. This help does come at a cost however. Mostly it is money that is needed. To pay for food, housing and support services for as many homeless veterans as possible. Even if just one gets the help he or she needs, it is worth it! Donations are always welcome of course. If not money, then consider donating items like food or clothing. There is also a lot of work involved in running such an organization. These require time and effort. Job opportunities are available, or show your appreciation for veterans by volunteering to help. Volunteers are always appreciated.

by Larry Shields
All rights reserved by author

A Female Veteran With PTSD – PTSD Impact on Being a Parent

Original Article found at: http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a33968/female-veteran-ptsd/

PTSD Makes It Impossible for Me to Be a Mother

After combat in Iraq, Melissa Thurber fights a battle at home.

Each night, Melissa Thurber turns on a window air conditioner and the television in her bedroom, desperately hoping to block out the sounds of training missions from Hurlburt Field, an Air Force installation, near her home. C-130 jets roar over her neighborhood; training ordinance explodes on the range 10 miles away. The Florida-based photographer clutches her Chihuahua while her two bigger dogs lay nearby. Sometimes, she imagines she can smell the dust and smoke — and it snaps her back to Baghdad.

“Loud noises trigger my PTSD,” explains Thurber, who served as a medic on an 18-month Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment in 2003. “If I hear anything, then I know I’ll have nightmares that night. It can even be as simple as walking outside and the light reminding me of Iraq. I remember things very vividly.”

Those memories have haunted her for a decade. Over time, Thurber, one of the 20% of female veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, has figured out her other triggers: new situations, loneliness, people yelling at her, and certain smells. Scenes swim before her eyes, from fellow soldiers lost in the flash of a mortar attack to holding others’ hands while they died. She blacks out, goes into an uncontrollable rage, or is overwhelmed by crippling terror and depression. The disorder has destroyed her five-year marriage, spurred her to attempt suicide, and has her considering placing her daughter Delanie, 13, and son Blake, 7, in her family’s care.

She’s never violently lashed out at her kids, but Thurber admits that her lack of awareness during episodes makes her keep her distance. “I’ve never felt like a good mother,” she says through tears. “I just can’t connect with my children, as much as I’d love to. Every time I look at them, I always think very bad s*** is going to happen to them.”

The Call of Duty

Life wasn’t always this way. Thurber, an easygoing, artistic teen, joined the Army in 1998 before her senior year of high school in Massachusetts. After graduation, she worked as a medic with an aviation unit.

When she was called for active duty, Thurber was already raising an 18 month-old daughter. She’d started the process of trying to leave the Army — not because she didn’t want to be in the military but so she could live in Florida, near her parents. As a single mother, she had the option to defer her deployment, but Thurber felt that if she was going to ship out eventually, leaving sooner would be easier. “My daughter was so young at the time, I thought it was better to leave her with my parents when she’s not going to remember me being gone.” She shipped out in December 2003 — the same month Saddam Hussein was captured.

Melissa Thurber in Iraq

 Melissa Thurber during her deployment in Iraq.
Courtesy of Melissa Thurber

Combat in Iraq

Though initially bound for an aviation unit clinic, Thurber was reassigned twice and ended up in Baghdad on a “mobile collection team” (MCT). As part of the Iraq Survey Group, MCTs were tasked with finding weapons of mass destruction and serving as security detail, often in the heart of danger. One of them, MCT-9 was comprised of elite soldiers including the British Royal Marines, Army Rangers, and Navy Seals, and they needed medics, so Thurber was assigned to support the unit. “We went outside the wire almost every single day,” she recalls. “We saw combat. Our friends died in front of us.”

In 2004 Baghdad, the insurgency was raging. Car bombings were frequent; U.S. military and civilians were targets of kidnappings and beheadings. Thurber often went on missions in uniform and in civilian disguises to the Green Zone, Baghdad’s central area — without the protection of armored vehicles.

Thurber also served rotations with the 31st Combat Support Hospital’s casualty team. “I remember sitting with a soldier who’d been brought in and being the one to shut the machine off,” she says. “Then having to put him into a body bag, bring him to the morgue, and move on to the next one. You don’t have time to process what’s going on.”

Mortar attacks at the base were a common occurrence. “One of my greatest fears was having to go and use the Porta-John at the end of our area. What if a shell came then and I died going to the bathroom?” she says. “You were always thinking, Am I coming home today? Am I going to be able to call my daughter tonight?

Finally, after 18 months, Thurber returned home in the spring of 2005.

Back to a New Reality

The adjustment — to parenting and civilian life — was daunting. After a few months living with her parents, Thurber and her daughter, then 3, moved into their own Florida apartment. “That’s when my life changed.”

She started having insomnia and nightmares — both common among PTSD sufferers — and a prescription sleep-aid from her doctor didn’t help. Thurber would stay awake all night and finally collapse from exhaustion around 6 a.m., right when her toddler would wake.

“I would put breakfast foods low in the pantry and taught her how to get them herself,” Thurber says regretfully. “I’d be sleeping and not watching my kid. Or if I was awake, I’d be sitting there not able to participate or feel joy.”

Thurber wasn’t officially diagnosed by Veterans’ Health Administration doctors until 2008, though she says she took her concerns to them within months of returning home. Out of options, she sent Delanie back to live with her grandparents while she dealt with what she was beginning to think might be PTSD. “I never wanted to abandon my daughter, but I was trying to learn how to live with something that I didn’t understand.”

Soon after, she met her husband. He provided safety and a boost to her depression, she says. Sleep finally came. On rare bad days, he helped with Delanie, who had returned to live with them again. Thurber says he never really acknowledged her PTSD, though, even when she would violently punch or kick her new husband in her sleep.

Melissa Thurber with Blake, left, and Delanie.
Melissa Thurber with Blake, left, and Delanie.
Courtesy of Melissa Thurber

Dark Days Return

Life was relatively stable for two years. But when she went off medication for her second pregnancy and then had a series of shoulder surgeries, her routine was disrupted  — and the uncontrollable anger surged back with a vengeance. “Many times, I would get outraged and black out,” Thurber says. “Once, I broke my hand punching a metal box and don’t remember it.”

Between the PTSD and the shoulder pain, she took a litany of medications: Trazodone, Seroquel, Clonipin, Prozac, and Xanax, as well as Lortab 10 (a kind of hydrocodone) and Tramadol. “I have no idea how I was able to walk around and function,” she says. “I was driving my kids to school and activities, but I don’t remember half of it.”

During that period, Thurber had a months-long affair. She says it began from a lack of control in the haze of her medication, though she admits she also enjoyed getting attention from someone during a time when her husband was gone frequently for work. But Thurber knew she was spinning out of control: “By the end,” she says, “I was practically begging my husband to find out. I did everything in my power to make him suspicious — because I felt like I was going off the deep end.”

The day after he learned the truth in January 2010, they were arguing in the living room when her latest round of medication arrived at the door. As she signed for it, Thurber decided she’d had enough — that she was tired of combatting her disorder and trying to rebuild her life. “I thought, F*** this,” she recalls. She grabbed the Seroquel, an antipsychotic, and downed the entire bottle. (Suicide attempts are also prevalent among female veterans with PTSD — and 22 American military veterans commit suicide each day.) Her husband called 911. After being stabilized in the hospital, she spent three days in a mental health facility.

Getting back on her feet — and off her medication — became even more complicated as her marriage grew increasingly volatile. Her husband, who she says still didn’t really believe in her PTSD, was extremely angry with her. “The whole time instead of thinking, This is his problem,” she says, “I felt like I messed up and deserved what was happening.”

One day, the bottom dropped out. Thurber worked as a technician at a dialysis clinic and had become friends with a patient, a woman in her early 20s. As Thurber pushed her out after a session, she coded in her wheelchair. “There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t save her.”

It was horrifyingly similar to her experiences in Iraq. Thurber stayed in bed for a week, not even calling her boss to explain her absence. “I didn’t move, do anything. Nobody really understood.”

Finding Focus

Thurber, who’d studied photography in high school, found an outlet in pursuing a new career. “I had an escape,” she says. “I didn’t always have to be at home, dwelling on this stuff. I could go out, feel good, and have fun. For a while it was great.”

But after her husband lost his job, went back to school and switched jobs, Thurber became the sole caregiver for the kids. “I’ve never considered myself to be a good mom, but I would do everything by myself that I can: Give them their baths, feed them, cuddle with them and watch a movie, put them to bed,” she says. The pressures on her mounted.

Her marriage continued to struggle. They separated in June 2014 but reunited that fall. While her husband was decorating the house with Christmas lights after Thanksgiving, Thurber just snapped. “I don’t know what triggered it, but I was irate when he came inside,” she says, explaining she hadn’t refilled her prescription for six days.

During the screaming match that ensued, she ran to the bathroom. He followed, blocking her in. The fight escalated. She recalls punching him in the back to get him to move. Then he called the police and had her arrested in front of her children. “It was mortifying.”

Thurber stayed in jail for three days because her family refused to pick her up. Her husband was also awarded a temporary restraining order. Fortunately, she says, the court looked at her PTSD and decided she needed help, not prison. She’s been attending court-ordered counseling ever since.

“I feel like I’ve never been given the opportunity to show that I am a good person,” she says, “because this monster that I can’t control likes to come out a lot.”

Delanie and Blake Thurber and one of their dogs.

 Delanie and Blake Thurber and one of their dogs.
Courtesy of Melissa Thurber

Motherhood with Mental Illness

For now, her son lives with his father. And she believes living elsewhere might be a better choice for her daughter, too. “I want to be a mom. I want to be their mom,” she says. “But I’m not good at it, even though I love them and I try.”

“PTSD is a hole that I can’t get out of,” Thurber says, adding that years of medication, counseling programs and other treatments haven’t stopped her anger or panic attacks. Plus, some prescriptions make her unable to drive to activities like school and nightly soccer practice. “I’d rather not be around my kids if they can be with somebody who can do more for them than I can,” she says. “That might be best because I don’t have full control over it. I want to, but I don’t.”

Her children know she has the disorder, but don’t really understand why it affects her relationship with them. “They don’t get why I won’t take them to the water park or why if we go to the 4th of July Fireworks, I have to park away from everybody else and hold my little dog,” she says. “If I’m in my dark bedroom sitting by myself, they know Mom is done for the day and to leave me alone. They shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

Still, she hopes to eventually find herself on the other side — and able to be a healthy parent to both her children. In addition to counseling and medication, she leans on a close group of former soldiers, many of whom also have PTSD. She’s working on a book of photographs and interviews with other veterans with the disorder. And she’s planning on moving away from the base.

“I have good days and bad days,” Thurber says. “I wish people understood PTSD more: We didn’t sign up for it, we signed up to serve our country. And while it’s not something I’ll ever be able to ‘cure,’ I desperately want to be able to live with it without fearing what I might do.”

Melissa Thurber with her children Blake (left) and Delanie.

 Courtesy of Melissa Thurber

About 8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives (around 8 million adults during a given year). For veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, those numbers climb to about 20%. Symptoms of PTSD for anyone who has experienced a trauma include nightmares and flashbacks to trauma, anger, jumpiness, depression, and alcohol or substance abuse. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that last for three months or more, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the National Alliance on Mental Illness for help.


IG Report: 300,000 Veterans Died While Waiting for Health Care at VA

Article Taken From: http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/09/04/ig-report-300000-veterans-died-while-waiting-health-care-va.html#.Ve9OEbQH-os.email

WASHINGTON — More than 300,000 American military veterans likely died while waiting for health care — and nearly twice as many are still waiting — according to a new Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general report.

The IG report says “serious” problems with enrollment data are making it impossible to determine exactly how many veterans are actively seeking health care from the VA, and how many were. For example, “data limitations” prevent investigators from determining how many now-deceased veterans applied for health care benefits or when.

But the findings would appear to confirm reports that first surfaced last year that many veterans died while awaiting care, as their applications got stuck in a system that the VA has struggled to overhaul. Some applications, the IG report says, go back nearly two decades.

The report addresses serious issues with the record-keeping itself.

More than half the applications listed as pending as of last year do not have application dates, and investigators “could not reliably determine how many records were associated with actual applications for enrollment” in VA health care, the report said.

The report also says VA workers incorrectly marked thousands of unprocessed health-care applications as completed and may have deleted 10,000 or more electronic “transactions” over the past five years.

Linda Halliday, the VA’s acting inspector general, said the agency’s Health Eligibility Center “has not effectively managed its business processes to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data” and recommended a multi-year plan to improve accuracy and usefulness of agency records.

Halliday’s report came in response to a whistleblower who said more than 200,000 veterans with pending applications for VA health care were likely deceased.

The inspector general’s report substantiated that claim and others, but said there was no way to tell for sure when or why the person died. Similarly, deficiencies in the VA’s information security — including a lack of audit trails and system backups — limited investigators’ ability to review some issues fully and rule out data manipulation, Halliday said.

The VA has said it has no way to purge the list of dead applicants, and said many of those listed in the report are likely to have used another type of insurance before they died.

VA spokeswoman Walinda West said Wednesday the agency has publicly acknowledged that its enrollment process is confusing and that the enrollment system, data integrity and quality “are in need of significant improvement.”

Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chairman and senior Democrat of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement that the inspector general’s report pointed to “both a significant failure” by leaders at the Health Eligibility Center and “deficient oversight by the VA central office” in Washington.

The lawmakers urged VA to implement the report’s recommendations quickly to improve record keeping at the VA and “ensure that this level of blatant mismanagement does not happen again.”

As of June 30, VA has contacted 302,045 veterans by mail, asking them to submit required documents to establish eligibility, West said. To date, the VA has received 36,749 responses and enrolled 34,517 veterans, she said.

“As we continue our work to contact veterans, our focus remains on improving the enrollment system to better serve veterans,” West said.

The Health Eligibility Center has removed a “purge-and-delete functionality” from a computer system used to track agency workloads, West said. VA will provide six months of data to demonstrate that any changed or deleted data on VA workloads has undergone appropriate management review, with approvals and audit trails visible, she said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

IG: Investigations of military child deaths flawed

In a review of how the military investigates child deaths, the Pentagon’s Inspector General found that 71 percent of criminal probes of child fatalities were flawed because investigators did not follow all required procedures, according to a new IG report.

The IG conducted a detailed review of the 82 child deaths — including eight homicides — that occurred over two years to evaluate the quality of investigations conducted, according to the report released Dec. 22.

Specifically, the IG reviewed the performance of the three military criminal investigations divisions, which include the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, and the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, or OSI.

Child death investigations often involve looking for signs of neglect or abuse that could result in criminal prosecution.

The IG found no problems with 18 cases, or about 22 percent.

In 64 of the child deaths, or 71 percent, the IG found “minor deficiencies.” That included, for example, cases where:

• Investigators failed to collect or review appropriate medical records

• Investigators failed to record fingerprint impressions, mug photographs and DNA evidence

• Supervisors failed to conduct the required reviews of the investigations

In the case of six child deaths, the IG identified major problems with the investigation that likely affected the “integrity” or the “outcome” of the investigation. Those problems included:

• Investigators failed to collect key evidence from the death scene, the potential suspects, or the remains of the child victim

• Investigators failed to properly examine the potential crime scene, which may have resulted in the loss of crucial evidence

The Army’s CID was singled out for an especially large number of flawed cases. Of the 43 child deaths that CID investigated, four, or less than 10 percent, were found to be without problems. In 35 cases, the deficiencies were considered minor and in four cases the IG said the flaws were significant and likely affected the outcome of the investigation.

Many of the Army CID cases were flawed because they failed to document any headquarters-level quality assurance reviews, which are required under Army policies, according to the IG report.

The Army CID leadership concurred with the IG’s findings and in a Dec. 1 letter promised to improve its child death investigations. “CID is an organization dedicated to providing high quality death investigations to ensure justice for the victims,” an Army officer, whose name was redacted in the IG report, wrote in the agency’s official response.

The IG reviewed child fatality investigations that were closed during fiscal years 2012 and 2013.

The 82 child death investigations reviewed included eight that were ultimately ruled to be homicides, 20 that were ruled accidental and 30 that were ruled to be by natural causes. Three were suicides and in 19 investigations, there was no determination about the manner of death, the report said.

Of the six death investigations that the IG said were flawed enough to warrant further review, two of them were reopened for additional investigation and potentially revised findings.

A Military Times investigation in 2013 found 29,552 cases of child abuse in the Army alone between 2003 and 2012. The abuse led to the death of 118 Army children; 1,400 of the cases included sexual assault.

Subsequent inquiries by Military Times uncovered similar statistics in the other services.

Between 2008 and 2012, there were 5,755 cases in the Air Force, 267 of them sexual, resulting in 16 deaths.

The Marine Corps figures for 2011 and 2012 showed 1,591 cases, 47 of them sexual, with six deaths.

The Navy reported 3,336 cases between 2009 and 2012.

Original Source: http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/crime/2014/12/23/child-deaths-ig/20815991/

Crazy, But Not Dishonorable

By Ray Parrish

Let’s get right to the bottom line. According to 38 USCS, section 5303(b): “if it is established to the satisfaction of the Secretary that, at the time of the commission of an offense leading to a person’s court-martial, discharge, or resignation, that person was insane, such person shall not be precluded from benefits under laws administered by the Secretary based upon the period of service from which such person was separated.”

Wow! Veterans can’t be denied VA benefits even if they left the military with “bad” discharges, down to and including DD’s (Dishonorable Discharges), if they can present a “credible” psychological evaluation that shows that they were “insane” at the time of the misconduct! They don’t have to show that the misconduct was “caused” by the mental disorder and it can be any diagnosis (PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.). You don’t need to get the military to “upgrade” the discharge or wait for Congressional or Presidential clemency.

A “credible” evaluation is one that bases its conclusions on the veteran’s military records and explains how they show the symptoms of “insanity,” using the VA’s definition of insanity printed below. The evaluation can also use medical records (military or civilian) and previous evaluations, and can make reference to notarized statements of friends and family to verify facts and the veteran’s behavior. Free evaluations and treatment are offered by volunteer mental health professionals at The Soldiers Project (877-576-5343). To find someone who’s ready to do the evaluation, call the VVAW therapist, Hans Buwalda at 773-370-4789. File a claim with the VA, be prepared to appeal denials, and don’t miss any deadlines.


Insanity Definition for VA Claims
38 CFR & 3.354
Determination of Insanity

(a) Definition of insanity. An insane person is one who, while not mentally defective or constitutionally psychopathic, except when a psychosis has been engrafted upon such basic condition, exhibits, due to disease, a more or less prolonged deviation from his normal method of behavior; or who interferes with the peace of society; or who has so departed (become antisocial) from the accepted standards of the community to which by birth and education he belongs as to lack the adaptability to make further adjustment to the social customs of the community in which he resides.

(b) Insanity causing discharge. When a rating agency is concerned with determining whether a veteran was insane at the time he committed an offense leading to his court-martial, discharge or resignation [38 U.S.C. 5303(b)], it will base its decision on all the evidence procurable relating to the period involved, and apply the definition in paragraph (a) of this section.

The public and the military have become more aware of the “invisible wounds of war,” thanks in large part to decades of work by VVAW members on this issue. We can hope that more veterans will seek treatment for mental health problems as we win the battle to de-stigmatize all mental disorders, especially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). So spread the word far and wide about this.

Ray Parrish is the Benefits Director at VVAW’s Military and Veterans Counseling Service.

Helping Veterans Obtain VA Benefits Saves Local Healthcare Budget Dollars

By Ray Parrish

Many veterans use non-VA healthcare facilities because VA regulations place bureaucratic hurdles in front of the veterans who are least able to overcome them and the people that these veterans go to for help either don’t know how or simply refuse to serve them because of their own prejudice.

There’s an ever-growing population of veterans, from ALL eras, with severe, untreated mental disabilities, especially PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). So severe, in fact, that the most out-of-control veterans commit some kind of misconduct while still in uniform and they end up with an “other than Honorable” military discharge. The VA has rules that allow them to grant benefits to these vets, but veterans are told the opposite by everyone they go to for help, until they come to our office. The VA denies the claims in the beginning and many veterans don’t know that they need to appeal and ask for a “character of service determination.” They can then win full benefits with an appeal if it includes a properly worded psychological evaluation explaining that the veteran was insane at the time of the misconduct. It doesn’t have to be a PTSD diagnosis and it doesn’t have to have caused the misconduct. However, if either is the case, this is an opportunity to make those claims.

Since disciplinary charges for misconduct pre-empt the medical disability retirement process, many vets end up with these “bad” discharges even after being recommended for military medical retirement for PTSD or another mental disability. The veteran may simply have given up on the military’s inadequate, inappropriate or nonexistent treatment and gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave). Misconduct involving drugs, alcohol or violence are also common. In addition, many veterans with PTSD are discharged for a “personality disorder” which the VA says is non-service connected. Once again a properly worded psychological evaluation can correct the diagnosis and the veteran can then get full VA benefits. It should be noted that many of these veterans have chronic medical conditions or illnesses that the VA will not treat until a favorable “character of service” determination is made.

We have “VA Claims Agents” accredited by the VA to represent veterans and their families in VA disability claims. They have the patience to deal with this population of veterans, the experience to write successful appeals and experience working with healthcare professionals in this specialized area. No other veterans group has a therapist on staff. This therapist, Hans Buwalda, does individual, couple, and group counseling for veterans and their loved ones. She also writes these psychological evaluations and trains volunteer mental health professionals, mainly from The Soldiers Project, which has 40,000 volunteers nationwide.

Our objective is to get these disabled veterans the treatment and housing that they so desperately need. For this to happen we need to make them eligible for benefits from the VA. Because the VA recognizes its limitations, they are funding non-VA, community-based service providers for healthcare, housing, job training and, most importantly, veteran-run peer-counseling. The actual number of such veterans and the cost savings to state, county and city budgets is a simple research task. These results may indicate that it would be cost effective for state and local healthcare providers to employ people in their facilities who can help these veterans win their claims for federal benefits.

Ray Parrish is the Benefits Director at VVAW’s Military and Veterans Counseling Service.

Article: Female veterans do battle for benefits at home

As more women serve in armed forces, the VA and other agencies gear up to meet their specific needs when they return home

Xatavia Hughes, an Iraqi war vet is looking for a safer neighborhood for herself and two sons. She is in her current home in the Englewood neighborhood on Nov. 6, 2013. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

Dec 02, 2013

Chicago Tribune| by Annie Sweeney

When Xatavia Hughes, the granddaughter of a military man, went to serve in Iraq, she was prepared to prove herself to the male soldiers.

“My grandfather was tough and strong. That is how I was brought up: ‘Don’t let it get to you. Show them,'” the 28-year-old mother of two said.

And she did. It was only after she returned from a war zone to Chicago in December 2010 that Hughes began to feel tested.

A month after returning, Hughes found herself in an improbable spot: living in a dorm room at the Pacific Garden Mission, the sprawling homeless shelter on the city’s West Side, shielding her two sons from addicts and criminals.

“Often when I was in shelter there was a bunch of veterans,” Hughes said of her six months of homelessness. “When we get out, I thought we were supposed to be taken care of. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is how our life is going to be?’ I never felt that I would do so much good and then have to be pushed aside.”

Hughes was like so many women over the past decade who stepped up to serve as the country launched two wars. They saw it as a way to get ahead in life and forge a different future.Women have become the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, a trend that is expected to continue. Their return has posed several new issues for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many are single moms. They have been adversely affected by the scandal of military sexual trauma that affects one in five women who serve. They report higher rates of mental health illnesses and homelessness. Many don’t feel comfortable in the male-dominated VA.

And though they already served in dangerous, life-threatening positions, the recent decision to allow women to fight in combat zones means even more are likely to return with complex and severe injuries that need attention.

Local VA hospitals have improved care and increased services for women vets, even down to their design and architectural elements. A new housing complex for veterans with families is scheduled to open next summer, offering some relief. The VA launched a hotline just for female vets in the spring.

And in the latest recognition of the need for services, a long-standing community mental health organization, Thresholds, this year expanded its existing veteran services, assigning more case workers to connect with female vets struggling on Chicago’s streets.

Homelessness, isolation

The need to reach female vets was identified in a May 2012 VA report as “acute,” given the rapid growth of the population, not to mention that they are now suffering injuries similar to male soldiers.

The report cited higher rates of homelessness among women and lower access and enrollment in VA health care.

The Chicago office of Volunteers of America, a long-standing social service agency, already had recognized the new wave of younger veterans with children who were struggling with homelessness, said Nancy Hughes Moyer, president and CEO of the Illinois affiliate.

The organization began looking at the needs of women veterans in 2010 and plans to open a new housing complex for families next summer. The organization also offers gender-specific programming, something Hughes Moyer said is going to be critical as more women return with combat-related injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder and high rates of anxiety.

“We know that is going to increase,” she said. “And they have dependent children.”

Thresholds secured a $350,000 grant to provide a range of services, from therapy to employment assistance, for an even more specific population: female vets with mental health issues.

“They have a lot more going on in their lives,” said Lydia Zopf, director of the veteran’s project at Thresholds, which is running the program. “They are more vulnerable.”

Thresholds offers gender-specific programming, including the option for vets to work with female staff.

Among the Thresholds clients is Hughes, who spiraled into homelessness about a month after returning home. Her $3,500 in savings went to expenses that included moving costs, winter clothes for her boys and “rent” payments to family members who offered her temporary and cramped spaces.

Meanwhile, her anxiety and stress was mounting. Fireworks on the Fourth of July sent her diving for cover. She mourned numerous losses in her unit.

“I was so happy to see my kids, my family,” she said. “But it was bittersweet because a lot of people didn’t get a chance to see their kids. … I felt guilty. I feel guilty.”

Hughes was able to secure a federal veteran housing voucher with the help of a caseworker at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago that let her get out of the shelters and into a Chicago home after about six months.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Hughes was feeling upbeat as she sat on her couch with Rebekah Pulju, a Thresholds social worker. On this visit, Pulju was checking in with Hughes on her current dream: a safer neighborhood for her children. She finds herself worried about the dangerous streets of Englewood and raising her children there. Pulju and others at Thresholds are trying to help find a better location.

“As long as it’s a nice neighborhood. If I find a nice neighborhood (for) my kids — that they can be able to play,” Hughes said. “I don’t even have to have a stove or a refrigerator. We can rent one. We can buy one cheap. Just as long as I have a big backyard.”

Barriers to service

For some returning female veterans, the challenges are especially daunting.

Back inside the Thresholds office on the North Side, Pulju meets with a 29-year-old Chicago woman who served in the Air Force and is currently covered 100 percent by the VA for PTSD. She can’t tell a reporter what happened, only that she knows the military changed her.

“It’s like I was alone,” she said. “I had my family. It felt like I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me anymore.”

Her goals, which she ticks off slowly to Pulju, seem simple yet tragically complicated at the same time.

“Being involved in more things. Getting out there meeting more people,” she said before hesitating for a long pause. “Stop being so isolated.”

In its 2012 report, the VA cited concerns that women were not accessing health care — something vets and experts here also have observed.

Jenny Garretson, the program manager for women veterans at Jesse Brown, said female vets can feel lost. “I can’t tell you how many times I have met a woman vet and she has told me, ‘When I got out of the military I didn’t know anything about the services that were available to me as a veteran or a female veteran,'” Garretson said.

Experts say a female vet who has experienced military sexual trauma would certainly find the busy, male-dominated hallways of a VA facility difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. But even without that type of traumatic experience, others simply don’t feel comfortable.

Inside a cheery Englewood library, Thresholds caseworker Shenetta Wilson, herself a vet, meets with client Francessca Phillips, 32, an Air Force vet and mother of two who has been homeless off and on over the past five years and suffered from depression after her service.

Phillips, who returned in 2004, waited five years before going to the VA. She acknowledges she felt some bitterness about her service — she didn’t get along with her bosses. But she also said it never really occurred to her to seek services at the VA. And then once she did, there were leering men who called out remarks like, “Hey girl, hey hot thing.”

Wilson, who served in Kuwait in the early 2000s, nodded.

“Ladies have been mistreated in different ways, anything as serious as (military sexual trauma) to just the sexism, the rampant sexism,” Wilson said. “It’s a part of the culture. That is not going to change overnight, and most of us accepted that. But when you get out … I have heard a lot of ladies say, ‘I am not a soldier anymore.’ They close that door. They don’t feel like a vet.”

That women have not served in official combat roles — though they are often impacted along with male soldiers — might also explain why they and others are less likely to see themselves as veterans.

“I was never deployed. I never saw any of the Iraqi Freedom action, but it created issues,” said Air Force vet Tessa Clark, 28, who served at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2003 when so many war dead were returned there. “It was hard for me to be in a lot of the veteran places. They are not friendly when you haven’t seen any action.”

Don’t Call Me Mister

Today there are numerous public education campaigns to remind those inside the VA hospitals that women serve too: Pink camouflage bags were passed out at Jesse Brown during breast cancer awareness month. A “Please Don’t Call Me Mister” poster campaign is a gentle reminder to staff not to assume that every surname on a doctor’s patient list belongs to a man.

Rochelle Crump, who served during the Vietnam era in the Women’s Army Corps and who has been an advocate for decades, is pleased to see these efforts by private agencies and the VA.

But Crump still worries.

Crump said she will continue to advocate through her National Women Veterans United organization, which holds information-sharing events for female vets and also recently formed what she think is the only all-female color guard in the state.

“We hold events so that women can feel proud of their service, so they know they are a veteran,” Crump said. “We write ourselves out of history when we don’t.”

© Copyright 2013 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.