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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Veterans Push Feds To Recognize Marijuana As A Treatment

Janine Lutz in front of her Memorial Wall, which she built with photos of veterans who committed suicide. Families of the vets send photos to her through her Live To Tell foundation. CREDIT: Julio Ochoa/Health News Florida

 

The following story is from my WUSF Public Radio colleague Julio Ochoa.

Originally published on August 16, 2018 9:29 am

Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.

Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.

But on the pills, Claybaker went from a highly-trained fighting machine to a zombie for at least two hours a day.

“I mean, I’m talking mouth open, staring into space,” Claybaker said.

Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and endured the discomfort for eight months.

Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, he discovered marijuana – and it changed his life.

“I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what’s going on or how bad it is,” Claybaker said.

Marijuana instantly relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.

“I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State,” he said. “I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things.”

In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Even with medicinal marijuana legal in Florida, the federal government says it’s a crime. Claybaker and other soldiers can’t get a prescription from the VA and their insurance won’t cover it. The out-of-pocket costs to buy a month’s supply from a dispensary can be upwards of $500.

Claybaker was featured in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about veterans who want the government to reclassify marijuana to reflect its medical value. The vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.

Reclassifying marijuana from a schedule 1 drug – which has no medical value – would open doors to research and treatment at the VA.

Janine Lutz, who was also featured in the Herald-Tribune’s report, joined the effort after her son committed suicide in 2013.

“The drugs killed my son,” Lutz said.

Janos (John) V. Lutz was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He returned home to Davie in 2011 with injuries to his knee and back and a severe case of PTSD.

Doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom says he was dead within a week.

“I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide,” Janine Lutz said. “And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case.”

Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.

Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military veterans. Families of vets who committed suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall.

Her “Buddy Up” events bring veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.

It was at those events that she learned how many veterans self-medicate with marijuana. With about 20 veterans committing suicide every day in the United States, Lutz says the government needs to act.

“Stop playing games with the lives of America’s sons and daughters and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds,” Lutz said.

The American Legion polled its 2 million members – war veterans – and found that 92 percent favored marijuana research. In addition, 22 percent reported using marijuana for medical reasons.

The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.

So far, that request has gone nowhere.

At a recent stop in Orlando, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has got to follow the rules.

“I’m not a doctor, never played one on television. I’m not a scientist,” Wilkie said. “I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear.”

Charles Claybaker says he and other soldiers deserve better. Claybaker started speaking out after a good friend and fellow ranger committed suicide.

“I think that the government owes it to the veteran to provide the most beneficial treatments for their injuries,” he said.

Marijuana, he said, helps him get through the dark times. He thinks it can help others too.

The radio version of this story is available here.

Continue reading

VA Faces Challenges Expanding Mental Health Care


Army veteran Phillip Faustman sifts through his belongings at a San Diego homeless shelter. Faustman says he attempted suicide three times in two and a half years.
Christopher Maue / KPBS

The following is a report from Steve Walsh, my colleague at the American Homefront Project, reporting on military life and veterans issues.

The Veterans Health Administration is planning to make mental health care more available to help reduce veteran suicide. But veterans advocates worry about the impact on the already strained VA health system.

A recent government study concluded that the majority of veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA mental health care.

Phillip Faustman almost became a part of that statistic. Faustman, who is gay, joined the Army in 2012 after the end of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian troops from serving openly in the military.

“I waited for the repeal, so I joined the Army to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.

While in the military, he suffered sexual trauma that led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Discouraged, he left the military in 2015, he said.

“When I first got out, I was alone, and no one was really helping me,” he said. “So I had my suicide attempt.”

Periodically homeless, Faustman did not turn to the VA, in part because he found the enrollment process daunting.

That’s a common problem among new veterans, only forty percent of whom receive VA mental health coverage. Many are discouraged from seeking care because of a complicated process to determine their eligibility. Veterans may have to prove, for instance, that their mental health need is connected to their service.

Without treatment, Faustman attempted suicide three times in less than three years. Continue reading

A Memorial Ceremony For Military Suicide Survivors

This is the third year the American Legion Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd, Tampa, is reaching out to family members and friends who have lost a veteran or military member to suicide.

The hope is to give an opportunity to remember loved ones, to honor their service to the country and to erase the stigma surrounding service members who have died by suicide.

“This event and message will focus on family members and friends who silently suffer the lost of their loved one to their battle with their inner demons,” stated Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, a retired Army combat veteran and chair of the American Legion Florida 15th District Veteran Affairs and Rehab.

The ceremony is Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 1 p.m. at Post 5, 3810 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL.

New Report: Suicide 21 Percent Greater Risk For Veterans

veteran_suicide_crisisline_graphicAfter releasing a summary in early July, the Department of Veterans Affairs today released its  full report on veteran suicides.

The Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001-2014 is a comprehensive analysis that looked at more than 55 million veterans’ records  from 1979 to 2014 from every state in the nation.

Some key findings from this year’s report include:
  • In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were users of the VA Health services.
  • In 2014, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all adult deaths by suicide in the U.S. but only make up 8.5 percent of the population age 18 or older.
  • In 2014, about 67 percent of all suicides by veterans a firearm was used.
  • Approximately 65 percent of all veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 years of age or older.
  • Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23 percent, while Veteran suicides increased 32 percent in the same time period. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent greater for Veterans.

A fact sheet is available and the VA is taking several measures to increase prevention programs and access to care and the Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255.

 

Run for Jamie Goal Reached, Awareness Mission Continues

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella reached to 0 mile marker of US 1 in Key West on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. after running and walking 405 miles from Tampa. Photo by Monica Kim.

Alex Estrella, a former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran, achieved his goal running 405 miles from the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to Key West.

He optimistically hoped to complete the personal challenge in eight days. However, it took more than 12 days to reach the 0-mile marker on U.S. 1 which happened Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

But his mission was about more than mileage. He wanted to honor Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette, also of Tampa, who committed suicide in February and to raise awareness of veteran suicide and PTSD.

In addition, Estrella wanted to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors, a non-profit organization that provides veterans services, and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance where veterans and active-duty military can obtain free help with PTSD.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

Airman’s Suicide Spurs Run from Tampa to Key West

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Jamie Brunette, an Air Force Reserve captain and Afghanistan War veteran, killed herself in her car February 9, 2015 in Tampa. Photo courtesy of Jamie Brunette Facebook.

Air Force Reserve Captain Jamie Brunette is described by friends as a vivacious athlete with a huge smile who loved people and loved to run.

Malia Spranger, an Air Force Reserve colonel, served with Brunette, was her friend and business partner. They were going to open a fitness center together in March.

But Brunette, an Afghanistan War veteran, took her own life February 9, 2015.

“She was (like) a daughter to my husband and I,” Spranger said. “She is obviously terribly missed by so many people out there.”

Jamie’s “raspy laugh” is what her roommate, Heather Milner, misses most.

“The way I remember Jamie is being super goofy. She was always dancing around and smiling and laughing. Like, every day was always a good day,” Milner said.

Milner was among the dozens of friends, airmen and community members standing outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base to honor the war veteran and support “The Run for Jamie.”

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base's main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Gulf War veteran and former Ranger Alex Estrella holds onto the photo of Jamie at the kick-off ceremony outside MacDill Air Force Base’s main gate for his 405-mile run to Key West.

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

Alex Estrella after the start of his 405-mile trek to raise awareness about PTSD and veteran suicide. Photo by: Valerie Bogle Photography

The solo run from Tampa to Key West was the idea of former Army Ranger and Gulf War veteran Alex Estrella, 56. Although the Tampa resident never met the promising young airman, Brunette’s suicide inspired him to do the 405-mile run to honor her, raise awareness about veteran suicide and post-traumatic stress.

“For those vets out there that may be suffering or something, speak to someone,” Estrella said just prior to starting his journey May 21, 2015. “Hope is a key word for me and God willing I’m going to finish this run for Jamie.”

Wearing combat boots, a 40-pound rucksack and escorted by Tampa Police volunteers, Estrella left MacDill hoping to make it to Key West in eight days. Within a few miles, the 90 degree temperatures forced him to change into running shoes and shed the rucksack.

Checking in with Estrella at the eight-day mark found him walking alone on Tamiami Trail about to turn south to Homestead just over halfway to his goal.

Hampered by the heat, blisters and cramping muscles, Estrella chuckled when asked if he considered abandoning his quest.

“I have 22 reasons why not to give up and those of course are the 22 vets a day that take their lives,” Estrella said.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

Alex Estrella wore combat boots for the first few miles of his run but blisters forced him to switch to running shoes.

According to the Veterans Administration, 22 veterans on average commit suicide every day. And that number only reflects those in the VA system. Those who have never used VA, along with active-duty military, reservists and National Guard are not included.

Despite his first chase vehicle having to turn back and getting only a couple of hours rest each night, Estrella continues.

Midday Thursday, he optimistically estimated that he will reach Key West on Sunday, May 31, 2015.

In addition to honoring Brunette, Estrella also hopes to raise the visibility of two organizations helping veterans, Hope for the Warriors and the Elk Institute for Psychological Health and Performance.

Veterans can get help by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, go online to chat live or text message to 838255.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa.

A couple dozen friends, airmen and veterans turned out for the start of The Run for Jamie just outside the main gate at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, on May 21, 2015.

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