A VA Suicide-Reduction Program Not Reaching Vets In Need

Last year, the VA began offering mental health treatment to vets who don’t normally qualify for VA care. Since then, fewer than 200 people have used the program. Steve Walsh with the American Homefront Project reports.


Former Marine Josh Onan talks with a mental health professional at the San Diego VA. Onan is taking advantage of a year-old program that makes VA care available to people with less-than-honorable military discharges.
Katie Schoolov / KPBS

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Onan was in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.

“I remember laying down in the truck,” Onan said. “Waking up, there is dust and debris all over me, and there was an Iraqi colonel, and he’s just screaming, screaming and I don’t understand what he’s saying.”

Onan suffered a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. During the next year, he was in and out of trouble with military officials, mainly for small infractions, which he chalks up to the medications he was taking.  Then, while on leave, he was caught with a small amount of cocaine and was kicked out of the Marines.

Onan is one of the thousands of veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges. They don’t typically qualify for VA benefits, even though they have a high suicide rate.

To address that, the VA last summer started a new program. It allows that group of veterans to come into the VA and be treated for mental health issues at least for 90 days.

Onan is taking advantage of the program. After years of being rejected by the VA, Onan now is getting his PTSD treatment paid for by the agency, and he hopes it helps him get back to being the person he was before the injury.

I’m 32 years old now, and this guy is 20, and I look up to this guy,” he said as he looked at a old photo of himself. “I know it’s me, but I miss everything about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find this guy.”

Advocates fault VA for inadequate outreach

The VA says nationally 115 veterans have used the program, a figure that’s disappointing to veterans advocates.  They say it represents just a small fraction of the veterans who now qualify for mental health care. The VA last year estimated that more than 500,000 veterans have other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s not possible that that’s the number of people who need help,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq vet who works with the Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s a failure to contact them, to fully inform them, and to break the stigma.”

Vietnam Veterans of America lobbied the VA to help veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s a program that most people who are eligible for haven’t heard of, and the reason for that is the VA refused to do any outreach,” said Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director Rick Weidman.

Weidman said there was an internal debate over whether the VA could pay to reach out to veterans who normally don’t qualify for VA care.

Illness Related To Service

Of the 115 people who took advantage of the program, 25 were in San Diego, according to the VA.

“They came in saying they had an urgent need, and they were evaluated and received care for that urgent need – whether it was a substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Neal Doran of the San Diego VA.

Earlier this year, Congress expanded the program to take in even more former service members.

Bi-partisan language inserted into a recent budget bill turned the VA program into law, making all vets with other-than-honorable discharges eligible for mental health care if their illnesses are related to their service.

The VA has not released details about how the new program will operate.

“VA is currently in the process of writing implementation regulations which will provide further guidance on expanding mental health care outreach to service members in need,” the agency said in a written statement.

The VA is also required to actively seek out the veterans who qualify.

But Onan said finding those veterans – and persuading them to seek out VA care – will still be difficult.

“I felt shunned. I still feel shunned,” Onan said.

He said treatment has been a lifesaver for him, but he fears the alienation he felt will make it difficult for other vets to seek help.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that a lot of them aren’t alive,” he said. “And the reason I say that, is without treatment and without proper care, even loved ones. I don’t think I could have done it without God and my family.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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Does Military Service Prepare Veterans For Politics?


Congressional candidates MJ Hegar (right) and Gina Ortiz Jones speak at the LBJ Presidential Library in June. Both are military veterans seeking their first political office.
Jay Godwin / LBJ Library

Dozens of military veterans – many of them with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq – are offering themselves as an antidote to Washington’s partisan rancor.

Veterans now make up less than 20 percent of Congress, compared with about 75 percent in the 1960s, according to the non-partisan organization, With Honor. Some high-profile candidates are trying to reverse that trend.

They’re running for Congress, often as political newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Their campaign ads and websites play up their military experience and their service to the country.

“We’re at a record low number of veteran representatives in Congress, and it’s no coincidence that we’re at a record level of toxic, hyper-partisanship,” said Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who is running as a Democrat in a historically Republican district that includes Fort Hood.  “I have a record of putting this country ahead of myself.”

Hegar is challenging eight-term incumbent John Carter, a non-veteran with an extensive background in military affairs. She kicked off her campaign in June with an autobiographical video that earned more than 4 million views online and raised upwards of $750,000. It puts her combat experience front and center, starting with the day she earned the Purple Heart.

“I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot,” Hegar tells viewers as the scene unfolds onscreen. “But I continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.”

Grounded by the attack, Hegar tried to get a different job in air support, but Pentagon policy at the time barred women from combat roles. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar challenged the policy in court and won.

Now, as she runs for Congress, Hegar says she put her military service at the center of her campaign not as a strategic move but as a reflection of who she is.

She argues that, while military experience isn’t the only thing that defines a candidate, veterans are uniquely equipped to deal with socially and politically divisive issues.

“I think that veterans have been thrust into a melting pot of people, have had to take on large-scale obstacles, and have been all around the world and immersed in other cultures,” she said.

At a campaign event in Austin, Democrats Debra Coe said Hegar has the kind of background that can help their party win control of Congress.

“She’s not afraid of anything” Coe said. “She’s fierce, and that’s what we need.”

Female veterans run in several states

Hegar is one of more than 400 veterans who’ve run for Congress this year, though some have already lost their primaries. As of mid-August, about 80 had won their party nominations; ten of those are women.

In addition to Hegar, they include fellow Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer; Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot; and New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who served as a Navy helicopter pilot.

For former military members, it’s not always easy to transition to politics.

“You’re out there in a very nasty and polarized political environment; that’s a big change from what most of our constituents saw in the military,” said Norm Bonnyman of  Veterans Campaign , a non-partisan organization that trains veterans to run for office.

Among the challenges facing veterans: As newcomers to politics, they often have little experience raising money and may lack the political connections they need to get party support. Many also lack deep ties to a community because they moved around a lot during their years in the service.

“While they have the discipline, while they have drive, while they have the leadership traits that a lot of folks are interested in seeing in their elected officials, those barriers to entry are very high,” Bonnyman said.

Then there are the gerrymandered, less competitive districts that make it hard for anybody to beat an incumbent.

“You can run a very compelling candidate with a military biography, but you can’t move a plus 20 Republican district into the Democrats’ column with merely changing the biography of your candidate,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist from Ramapo College of New Jersey who wrote the book Why Veterans Run.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has been serving in Congress since 2003. Though he’s not a veteran, he’s talked a lot during his campaign about his support of the military. Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Incumbents stress their military support

Carter, the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 31st District, has said little during his reelection campaign about the military service of Hegar, his Democratic challenger. But he’s played up his own support of the military.

Carter wrote and championed the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act, a newly-passed piece of legislation that allows veterans to receive organ transplants from non-veterans with their VA coverage. He also pushed to get additional funding for Fort Hood as part of the defense budget.

“By their very nature, soldiers and the military demand more attention, and I’m glad to give it to them,” Carter said. “My overall congressional experience has been heavily centered on veterans affairs.”

Carter has run against veterans before and never lost.

“I think we rise or fall on our accomplishments of our lives,” Carter said. “That’s generally how I run my race, whoever I’m running against. ”

During a recent appearance by Carter at an American Legion post, many voters in the heavily Republican district said they didn’t know much about Hegar, and that her veteran status was unlikely to make them vote across party lines.

“I won’t vote for a Democrat,” said American Legion member American Legion member Larry Gossett. “Their philosophies and their beliefs are nothing close to what mine are.”

The Cook Political Report in August ranked the seat “Likely Republican” in the November election.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

White House To Soften Military Consumer Protections

Photo courtesy of FBI.gov

The following is the introduction to an NPR report on the White House rollback of regulations that protected service members from predatory lenders.

By Chris Arnold, NPR

The Trump administration is taking aim at a law designed to protect military service members from getting cheated by shady lending practices.

NPR has obtained documents that show the White House is proposing changes that critics say would leave service members vulnerable to getting ripped off when they buy cars. Separately, the administration is taking broader steps to roll back enforcement of the Military Lending Act.

The MLA is supposed to protect service members from predatory loans and financial products. But the White House appears willing to change the rules in a way that critics say would take away some of those protections.

“If the White House does this, it will be manipulating the Military Lending Act regulations at the behest of auto dealers and banks to try and make it easier to sell overpriced rip-off products to military service members,” says Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah, who reviewed the documents.

You can read the full NPR story here.

Evidence Of Housing Discrimination Against Veterans

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Quil Lawrence, NPR Veterans Correspondent. Photo by David Gilkey/NPR

The following audio is a report by Quil Lawrence from National Public Radio.

It had long been suspected.

There was even anecdotal evidence.

But it wasn’t until the Washington state attorney general set up a “sting” that officials had proof that landlords were discriminating against veterans using federal housing vouchers.

The HUD vouchers were part of the Department of Veterans Affairs effort to end homelessness among veterans.

But because of the high cost of housing and the unwillingness of landlords to accept vouchers, Lawrence reports that homelessness increased last year.

You can listen to his NPR report here.

Future Unknown For Caregivers Of Post-9/11 Veterans

Ken and Patti Katter have learned to make adjustments to live with his memory loss due to traumatic brain injury.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have drafted more than a million family members into caring for returning wounded and injured troops. They’ve been called “Hidden Heroes” – the military caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans.

They are mostly young spouses with young families or aging parents who never expected to take on the role.

Patti Katter’s world changed the night her husband returned from Iraq. Army Sergeant Ken Katter survived two roadside bombs that hit his truck in May 2007 with what were thought to be minor injuries, a concussion and ruptured eardrums. So, he remained in combat for his full 15-month deployment and didn’t come home until October 2007.

“We had dinner together and probably within an hour, he didn’t remember eating. I thought he was just very sleep deprived because he’d just gotten home. So I just kind of blew it off a bit,” Patti Katter recalled about his first night home from Iraq.

Patti Katter has ordered and managed her husband’s medications for almost 10 years and going.

But that same night, Ken Katter had a seizure while sleeping and without any time to prepare Patti Katter was thrust into the role of military caregiver.

“I really put my foot down and I said you need to go to the doctor,” she said. “He was having not only memory issues but he was in a lot of pain. He was frustrated very easily.”

Her husband saw a doctor about a week later. Over a series of months and medical appointments, Ken Katter was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, a blown disc in his neck, a back injury, hearing loss, the list goes on from complex symptoms such as seizures to simple things like he can no longer remember how to write his name in cursive.

He was medically retired from the military in 2010 after serving in the U.S. Army since 2005 and the Marines from 1990-1994.

Inside the Katter home just northeast of Sarasota, a bouquet of bright red roses sat prominently in the kitchen pass through. Patti bought them for herself.

“It’s important to love yourself,” she said. “Ken’s not, he doesn’t emotionally attach anymore. So I’ve learned. I know he loves me. I have no doubt about that, but I’ve also learned to love myself better.”

Ken Katter took up wood carving as part of his rehabilitation. His wife says his brain injury has made it more artistic.

Ken Katter’s “self portrait” carved into a walking stick.

Ken Katter’s “invisible” injuries also left him with balance problems and other medical issues that prevent him from holding down a job or doing even small household tasks like hanging ceiling fans.

But he counts himself lucky. He has all his limbs and can walk. His seizures are under control so he can drive again – even though he has a tendency to get lost, he now uses GPS to guide his travel.

For the last decade, Patti Katter has managed her husband’s medical appointments, medications and rehabilitation. She initially homeschooled their three children so it was easier to see the myriad of doctors. And she took care of the household too.

Then three years ago, the stress overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t suicidal, but I was in a dark place. Not only was I dealing with being a caregiver, I had a mom who had cancer and my dad was unhealthy,” she said.

She learned to care for herself and found a job with a non-profit, Hope for the Warriors. She now works from home helping other military caregivers navigate the system. And she is a fellow with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that advocates for military and veteran caregivers.

“So many of these young spouses in their 20s and 30s (are) suddenly realizing that they’re going to be caregivers probably for the next 50 years if not their entire life and no one was handing them a manual,” said Steven Schwab, executive director of the Dole Foundation.

The Dole Foundation did a scientific survey of military and veteran caregivers to find out what they needed. The Hidden Heroes Report found that respite care topped the list, followed by the need for mental health support and training.

The Katter family: Hunter, Savanna, Patti, Ken, and Ashlay.

“These caregivers – especially the Post-9/11 caregivers – are struggling from high rates of depression and anxiety. They’re incredibly isolated,” Schwab said. “They feel alone and in most cases are alone without a support system.”

That’s why former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole started the foundation. It does research and offers innovation grants to organizations, caregiver fellowships, and a national registry of more than 200 vetted caregiver resources.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a special program for caregivers of Post-9/11 veterans severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It provides financial help and other services.

“The majority of our veterans in this program do have post traumatic stress, mood disorders and TBI,” said Cynthia Fletcher, a caregiver support coordinator at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA. “So, the caregivers are struggling with those behavioral disturbances, those mood disturbances which can be very challenging.”

Fletcher said the VA also operates a caregiver support line, 1-855-260-3274, for military caregivers of veterans from all eras. She said it received more than 57,000 calls last year.

Ken Katter served four years in the Marines, and more than a decade as a police officer before rejoining the Army.

And the VA secretary asked Congress in March to expand the Post-9/11 caregivers program. Of particular concern to caregivers like Patti Katter is what happens 20 or 30 years from now should her husband’s memory problems worsen and she is unable to cope.

“Or what if something happens to me, who is going to take care of him?” Patti Katter asked. “Our kids have been very resilient. They love their father, but I don’t want that to fall on their plate.”

The VA estimated about 4,000 caregivers would qualify for its Post 9-11 program. But almost 25,000 were enrolled within four years. So, the VA has been scrambling to fill the immediate demand leaving little time to consider the long-term needs of veteran caregivers.

You can listen to their story which aired on WUSF 89.7 FM as part of the American Homefront Project.

West Point Women Reflect On Marines’ Nude Photo Scandal


Laura Westley and Carol Barkalow are both West Point graduates and authors of memoires about their military experiences.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The recent scandal over Marines sharing nude photos of female Marines online hasn’t demoralized some women veterans. Two female West Point graduates from Florida refuse to let it overshadow recent gains women have made in the military. And they have some ideas on how to prevent similar incidents.

The United States Military Academy at West Point didn’t even accept women in their ranks until 1976. Carol Barkalow was in that first class. She graduated in 1980 and served 22 years in the Army.

Barkalow remembers how female cadets were hazed and harassed back then. But she said women have made progress since, even in light of the nude photos.

“There is some good news with this, even though what they did was horrible,” Barkalow said. “Now, we have the social media and the interest to try at last to get the military to understand that we are a vital part of this force. We are never going away and some very basic things have to change within our military.”

West Point has come a long way over the last 40 years, she said. It now has a female dean of students and female commandant.

“But what we have to have – we have to have women, general officers admirals in every rank in each of the services. So much so that, when you walk in a room, it’s not just one woman, it’s not just two women, it’s a number of women sitting at the table and have the ability to influence our future,” Barkalow said.

Barkalow, who lives in Pinellas County, is friends with 2001 West Point graduate Laura Westley, who grew up in New Port Richey. Continue reading

Veterans Get Free Training For “New Collar” Jobs

About a dozen veterans took part in the intense week-long training and certification offered for free by IBM. The first session of 2017 was offered in Tampa, FL.

It’s estimated the high tech industry will create more than 200,000 “new collar” jobs in the next three years. To fill those positions, IBM is tapping into a workforce that’s already well trained – veterans.

“We need to get people to hit the ground running and be productive,” said Tampa IBM executive Stuart Bean. “And you just can’t fill them unless you have people who are already disciplined, already trained, mature enough, (and) can hit the ground running.”

Tampa IBM hosted the first veterans session of 2017 followed by a free veterans’ session this week in at Asher College in Las Vegas and April 3 in Pittsburgh, The Tower at PNC Plaza, 300 Fifth Avenue. Additional sessions are available in Philadelphia, Houston and Fort Hood, Texas and several other cities. Continue reading

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