For many U.S. military veterans, returning home from war means it's time to begin another battle: the fight to receive proper physical and mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. We want to hear firsthand stories from veterans about their experiences and struggles with the VA.
The slowness that plagues the VA has been a well documented issues for years. President Obama is still struggling with it. Currently, there are about half a million claims for assistance from the VA that have been pending for more than 125 days. In the context of the desperate needs of injured and disabled veterans, that is a scary statistic.
Last week, a government study into the causes of military and veteran suicides cited factors like depression, mental illness, and drug and alcohol abuse— all things that could be alleviated with the help of a good health care system for veterans. The discussion section below our post on that report is full of veterans telling their horror stories. We want to give veterans who have struggled upon their return home a chance to be heard more broadly. If you are a military veteran who would like to share your experience dealing with the VA and post-military life, email Hamilton@Gawker.com. All responses will be kept anonymous.
We'll kick this series off with from a veteran who served five years as a US Navy intelligence specialist. (He worked in support of Navy SEAL teams, though he was not a SEAL himself):
I'd like to let you know about some of the experiences I encountered during my time in the service, and the terrible mental impact they had on me. These experiences are not unique, and I saw sailors attempt suicide because of the treatment they received. I'll only speak to my experiences.
I was based on Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, in San Diego. My command existed to give intelligence support to deployed SEAL Teams. We worked long, hard hours but we had the satisfaction of knowing that our work helped keep our guys alive. Our leadership eventually rotated out and new leadership was brought in. Just like with any other job, new bosses cause problems simply because your comfort bubble has been popped.
My Lieutenant called me one morning, asking if I'd like to go to Iraq because an east coast SEAL Team was deploying in 10 days and needed an intel analyst. I had trained for years, both in the classroom and with Teams on their pre-deployment exercises, so I was more than excited to go.Though my thoughts on the military are very negative at this point, having the fortune to deploy with a SEAL Team will probably always be the most proud moment of my life.
Since I was an intelligence person, I wasn't out shooting people. Most of my work was done on our base, though we would tag along with the shooters under certain circumstances. Our base, just like every body else's, was mortared and fired upon with RPGs. We lost a few guys during the deployment, not SEALs, but Rangers who were members of our Task Force. Our base was hit by car bombs and suicide bombers multiple times. On one occasion, insurgents found out that local officials were meeting with our higher-ranking officers and hit the convoy of officials with a car bomb on their way out of our base. The attack happened in the middle of the day, which was when I slept. The explosion was so large that it bounced me out of bed. It killed the officials (40 in total) and our gate guards.
My deployment wasn't one where I was shot at frequently, it was one where we were (generally unsuccessfully) bombed. Finding a suicide bomber's head in the base wasn't unheard of.
When I got home to San Diego, I asked my Chief about off-the-books leave that she had promised me before I left (because of such short notice for the deployment) and she told me that she "never went on leave after coming home from deployment on a boat," and "why would you want leave? It's not like anybody died there." For the first time in my life, I blacked out in anger. Another Chief told me that I had some choice words for her... After I returned from deployment, my chief responsible for deployment constantly wrote me up and ranked me as the worst sailor she had.
I was drinking heavily, eating garbage and putting on weight. For the first time, I failed a PT test because I was too heavy. I was clearly depressed, but most of my friends were as well, so they didn't notice. My supervisors should have...
I rotated to a new command in Bahrain. The weather caused lung damage I had to act up (a couple of years prior, the Navy had misdiagnosed pneumonia as a pulled back muscle and my lung collapsed, causing me to get a chest tube,) and the country reminded me of Iraq. Since I'd just reported to the command, I weighed in and was overweight, so it counted as a PT test failure. I felt like shit about myself for failing PT tests, I was angry at myself for being depressed, I would frequently see trash on the road and be terrified that it was an IED and most nights I was blind drunk. My Chief pulled me aside one day to ask me if anything was wrong with me, I totally broke down. I had never cried when a person I knew died, but I bawled my eyes out. I told him everything that was bothering me, that I needed help, that I was always that an IED was going to blow me up on the way to work and that I wanted to kill myself. His solution was to put me in a weight loss class.
I dropped a ton of weight, but I was going through half of a fifth of rum a night. We had alcohol rations, so I'd have people who didn't drink buy booze for me because I'd be out of points in one week. After about nine months, I took a PT test. I passed the run, pushups and sit-ups with flying colors, but I weighed in 7 pounds overweight. The Navy was downsizing, and this was my 3rd failure so I was getting booted out. Thankfully it was an honorable discharge.
I reported back to San Diego to wait to get out of the Navy. I waited ten months to be discharged. I was staying in a Navy hotel, my car had been shipped home when I went to Bahrain (I had follow on orders to Augusta, GA, and I'm from close to there,) so I would drink until I passed out, and on weekends I would stay at my friend's apartment where we would drink heavily. I only had to report to my command in the morning to show that I was still alive. I'd sometimes show up drunk, supervisors would ask me how I was doing and I would flat out tell them that I wished I was dead or back in Iraq. Nothing was done.
I can't tell you what it was that kept me from killing myself, I can only tell you that I informed multiple people in the military that I didn't want to breathe anymore and no person even told me to not do it.
I am married and living back home now and I am doing much better. I am lucky to have strong parents and a strong wife to help me deal with my depression, because I am still waiting for a VA doctor to examine me and approve my disability. Most days I am fine, but I do have bad days. I probably need therapy and medication, but The VA would rather I just kill myself so they don't have to give me medical care.
I hope this sheds some light on the treatment of troops and what might push a sailor to take his own life.
If you'd like to share your own story of dealing with the VA, email Hamilton@Gawker.com