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KING: Epidemic of Veteran Suicide Linked to Minute Brain Tears

This is a horror story.

It is a story of unmitigated suffering and death from despair. It is the story of our veterans, who are 57 percent more likely to take their own lives than those who haven’t served their country.

Every day in the United States, an average of 17 veterans commit suicide. Those who have served in special combat force units, like Navy SEALS, are a little more likely to die this way than regular forces.

These veterans are suffering and dying in plain sight. Veterans, whether they have seen action or not, are ending lives by their own hands — hands that willingly took up arms to serve.

There is a clear and present crisis in the deaths of those who have borne the battle, heard their country’s call, and who die, often alone in despair.

Around Veterans Day, we remember them, but what do we know of them?

More veterans have taken their own lives in the last 10 years than died in the Vietnam War. Frank Larkin, chairman of Warrior Call, an organization that asks anyone who knows a veteran to call them from time to time and ask, “How are you doing? What do you need? Can I get help for you?” But primarily to convey the comfort of knowing “you are not alone.”

However, the problems are beyond loneliness and the well-known precursors to suicide: drug abuse, alcoholism, joblessness and broken relationships.

New research shows that what ails these sad heroes isn’t just psychological and moral despair but physical brain damage — minute tears in the brain that CT scans don’t pick up.

A leading researcher into brain injury and concussion, Dr. Brian Edlow, professor at Harvard and associate director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery at Massachusetts General Hospital, said these tears are only discovered in postmortems when the brain tissue is put under a powerful microscope.

The cause of these tears, Edlow told guest host Adam Clayton Powell III in a special Veterans Day episode of the television program “White House Chronicle,” are blasts that troops experience on the battlefield and in training — massive concussive blasts, over and over again. Those concerned emphasize that the victim doesn’t have to see combat to suffer damage, it happens in training as well.

Sometimes the tears are a result of a physical head injury like a soldier’s head hitting the inside a tank or a blast throwing a soldier against a wall. Still, mostly it is the shockwave, according to Edlow.

“Just to appreciate the scope of this problem, if you look at the post-9/11 generation, those who answered the call to serve after September 11, 2001, over 30,000 active-duty and veteran military personnel have died by suicide during that time period, which is four times more than the number of active-duty personnel who died in combat,” he said, adding that the “extent of the suicide problem is humbling.”

Larkin said that two-thirds of those who commit suicide have never been to a VA hospital or sought institutional help.

For Larkin, the story is personal. His son Ryan, a decorated Navy SEAL who served for 10 years with four active-duty deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a suicide.

Ryan returned from active duty a changed young man, 29 years old. He was moody, didn’t smile and showed classic signs of depression. His family couldn’t get him out of it, and his brain scans were negative. After a year, he took his own life.

Earlier, Ryan had asked that his body be used for medical research. Postmortem diagnosis at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center revealed substantial brain damage that wasn’t detectable during the year before his death, his father said.

“The system didn’t know what to do and it defaulted toward psychiatric diagnosis,” Larkin said.

Referring to scans and other techniques now in use to examine the brain, Edlow said, “We simply are not accurate enough to detect these sub-concussive blast-related injuries.”

Ryan’s tragedy is repeated 17 times a day — and that figure doesn’t account for those who die in deliberate accidents and are otherwise not reported as suicide, Larkin said.

While medical science and the military catch up, all we can do, as Larkin said, is to check on a veteran, any veteran. You could save a life, bring a man or woman back from the precipice.

Pennycuick Hosts First Veterans Appreciation Breakfast

(From a  press release)

State Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Berks/Montgomery) recently hosted her first Veterans Appreciation Breakfast on Saturday, November 4 at Upper Perkiomen High School, as a way to say “thank you” to all our local heroes.

Several hundred were in attendance, which included veterans, veterans’ guests, exhibitors, and guest speakers. Veterans from every American conflict, from the Korean War to Operation Inherent Resolve, were in attendance. Dr. Jim Arcieri of Community Bible Fellowship Church, recited the blessing and benediction and the keynote speaker was state Rep. Timothy J. O’Neal (R-Washington Co.).

“We can never truly thank our veterans enough for their service to our country and community,” said Senator Pennycuick. “This event is a small token of gratitude that carries a big message: we wouldn’t be the nation we are without our veterans. I am pleased so many of our veterans were able to participate and be recognized for their heroic acts.”

Sen. Tracy Pennycuik talks with a veteran.

Veterans also enjoyed patriotic songs performed by the Upper Perkiomen High School Women’s Choir and the National Anthem performed by Upper Perkiomen High School student, Autumn Alderfer. Attendees were also able to obtain veteran identification cards from the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds.

Various organizations were available to provide veterans with various information and services including: Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds, Montgomery County Veterans Affairs, Norristown Vet Center, PA Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, Tails of Valor, Paws of Honor Program, Inc., The Korean War Memorial America-Korea Alliance Peace Park, Valley Forge Military Academy & College, Veterans Brotherhood, Vets For Vets Healthcare, state Rep. Milou Mackenzie (R-Bethlehem), state Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks), and state Rep. Donna Scheuren (R-Gilbertsville).

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DelVal Pols Step Up for Veterans As Independence Day Approaches

Delaware Valley politicians want to do their part for veterans, and they have stepped up their efforts in the legislature and on the street as Independence Day approaches.

A pro-veteran resolution supported by multiple senators, including Montgomery Sen. Tracy Pennycuick and Bucks Sen. Frank Farry, unanimously passed the Senate last Thursday, Farry told DVJournal.

If it is approved, the resolution would “direct the Joint State Government Commission to establish the Task Force on Women Veterans’ Health Care.”

Farry said he was moved to support the proposal after hearing from constituents about the shortfalls in healthcare for female veterans.

“The impetus of it was, in working with some of my veterans at home, I came to realize—people can talk about the VA (Veterans Affairs) and the level of service they get, but in the case of women, it was so much more extreme in terms of lack of service,” he said.

“Even though that’s more of a federal responsibility, that doesn’t mean we as a state can’t take a look at the issue,” he continued. “It’s important that our veterans have the proper care. And if there are specific needs for women, we want to make sure those resources are available for our female veterans.”

Pennycuick told DVJournal women “continue to make up a growing percentage of our nation’s armed services and veteran community.”

The senator claimed “nearly 60,000 women veterans in Pennsylvania” and that “by 2045, it is estimated that women will make up approximately 18 percent of commonwealth veterans.”

“As a veteran myself, I know the struggles firsthand female veterans experience trying to obtain care to match their unique needs,” she said. “Establishing the Women Veterans’ Health Care Task Force will help to bridge these gaps and ensure that every veteran has access to the care they deserve.”

The resolution would direct the task force to include “a mental healthcare provider” with relevant experience working with veterans, along with both a “substance abuse and addiction treatment provider” and a “healthcare provider,” each possessing similar experience. Veterans have historically faced mental health, addiction, and healthcare problems at higher rates than the general population.

Farry said the task force “is a crucial step in ensuring female veterans have access to health care designed to support their specific needs.”

“I am proud to support this resolution and will continue to advocate for those that risk everything in service to our country,” he said.

At the local level, Republicans in Chester County will hold a clothing drive for veterans in what has become an annual tradition every Fourth of July.

The Republican Committee of Chester County will serve several dozen veterans at the third RCCC Veterans’ Clothing Drive. The program is a function of the RCCC Charis Community Outreach Program. (The word “charis” is derived from a Greek word meaning “kindness” or “life.”)

John DeSantis, an organizer with the RCCC, told DVJournal that the event began small three years ago.

“We started very locally with the West Goshen Township Republican Committee,” DeSantis said. “It was [RCCC Charis Community Outreach Director] Dave Sommers who came up with the idea to collect clothes for the veterans and tie it into July 4th.”

Sommers “took that idea to the county committee and said, ‘We’re doing a lot of good stuff with the West Goshen GOP; can we move some of this stuff up to the county level?’ And that was approved.”

“We ask for what the vets are looking for,” DeSantis said. “We get a list of T-shirts, shorts, underwear, and socks. This year there are some sunglasses requests.”

“They’ve also started a Food Pantry at the VA,” he said. “So we have some food donations to take over.”

Meanwhile, Sens. John Kane (D-Chester) and Maria Collett (D-Montgomery) are among those lining up behind another pro-veteran bill in the Senate; this one meant to support veteran-owned businesses in the state.

Senate Bill 438 would, if passed, “authorize the creation of special logos to promote veteran-owned businesses,” Senate Republicans said in a release.

Participating businesses must be 51 percent owned by “a veteran, reservist or member of the National Guard.” Half of the registration fees associated with the program would benefit the Veterans’ Trust Fund, which distributes grants to nonprofit groups assisting veterans throughout the state.

Montgomery Democratic Sen. Maria Collett told DVJournal she was “pleased to see [the bill] pass out of committee this week.”

“According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, veterans are 45 percent more likely to start their own business than non-veterans,” she said. “I’m honored to represent a district with such a strong military presence and legacy, and I’m proud to support legislative efforts like this to better support veterans across our Commonwealth.”

“It is not easy to transition from serving our great country to civilian life,” Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver), the bill’s primary sponsor, said.

“The men and women who wish to run their own business while navigating life after military service are inspiring and deserve our support,” she said. “In addition to supporting our veterans, this program would also support the creation of new jobs and business opportunities.”

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KING: Veterans Who Have Borne the Battle Suffer the Peace in Isolation

For those who serve in the military, that is the ultimate bonding time: Camaraderie beyond imagining and sharing beyond compare. Laughing, fearing, hurting, hoping, and, sometimes, dying together. A time when the future is just a day ahead, a command away and if in combat, a time when death can arrive in an instant.

When men and women survive in the military, their greatest struggle lies ahead: Reentering civilian life.

Coming home, demobilized, set adrift in a sea of indifference, the veteran is separated from the ties that bind, in a world of alien values, mixed signals, and terrible, inescapable, nightmarish loneliness. This is compounded by the stresses of finding accommodation, work, and a purposeful life.

Our returning veterans are committing suicide at a greater rate than at any other time in our history. In recognition of Veterans Day, I talked with Frank Larkin, who works to connect Americans, especially those who have worn or are wearing the uniform, with veterans through a simple call and to help vets navigate their lives after service.

Larkin is a former Navy SEAL, a former U.S. Senate sergeant at arms, a former U.S. Secret Service agent, and he has worn the uniform of two police departments. But mostly, he is the grieving father of Ryan, a Navy SEAL who saw duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and who took his own life five years ago.

“I couldn’t save my own son,” he told me in an emotional moment during the interview I did with him on “White House Chronicle” on PBS.

Currently, Larkin is chief operating officer of the Troops First Foundation and chairman of the Warrior Call Initiative.

Larkin said “isolation” is the biggest pressure on former troops. They are cut off from the world they know – which he called “their tribe” — and plunged into one they don’t know, alone with their memories. These can amount to what Larkin calls “moral damage,” things that they have done and seen in the battle space which they can’t share with the civilian world. Things that have changed them.

Larkin said of his own son, “He came back changed. I could see it, but I couldn’t reach him, nor could my wife who is a medical professional.”

There are physical injuries as well. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the best known, but there are others. For example, Larkin said, today’s weaponry may be damaging troops, especially in training. Blast waves and repeated recoil shaking may be causing Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which is different from the brain injury suffered by football players. With TBI, there are minute tears in the brain which can’t be detected with normal brain scans.

These blast or shock waves from high-velocity weapons are a constant in training. Larkin noted that when a soldier fires a Carl Gustav shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, “It’s like getting your head blown off.”

After World War II, there were ticker tape parades. Every warrior was a hero. Everyone had served or knew someone who had served. The war had been a common shared experience. Most men and a lot of women had “done their bit” in the parlance of the Greatest Generation.

That began to change with Korea, and especially with Vietnam; returning troops weren’t celebrated and those wars weren’t a matter of national pride.

Then the draft ended, Larkin reminded me, and going to war ceased to be a shared experience. It became a discrete occupation, although U.S. troops have been at war or in harm’s way for two decades now. But without the draft, it is out of mind, out of sight, out of caring. Many of us don’t know a single veteran in these days of the volunteer army. We respect them in absentia, sometimes just on Veterans Day.

If all isn’t well with mental health out there in the battle space of civilian life, it isn’t well inside the military either. Suicide among serving men and women, is at record highs too.

More veterans have died from suicide than died in Vietnam combat, Larkin said. His initiative, Warrior Call, advocates that a simple phone call can save a life. “‘How are you doing? I’m thinking about you, buddy,’ is all you have to do,” Larkin said.

Veterans Day has become about sales and discounts, less and less about those who have borne and battle and now must bear the aftermath, often in terrible isolation.

Fisher House: On the Road to 100 Houses, And Helping Vets Along the Way

With the final U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan over a year ago, some Americans ask why we still need the Fisher House, the “Home Away From Home” housing at military and VA medical centers around the world.

Ask Ben Breckheimer.

He had been an operating room specialist when, called up for his second tour to Afghanistan in 2009, he voluntarily reclassed to be a cavalry scout —  a role he describes as the eyes and ears of the battlefield. Two months in, Breckheimer’s vehicle ran over an IED during a routine patrol.

“My lower right leg was probably 95 percent hanging off, and it was saved by just a very minimal strip of skin,” Breckheimer said.

For two months, Breckheimer was treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he underwent a limb salvage program to save his leg. After the surgery was completed, he still needed extended rehabilitation and a place for his family to stay.

That is why the Fisher Houses exist, and why the Fisher House Foundation has set a goal of announcing its 100th house early next year.

Founded by Elizabeth and Zachary Fisher in 1990, its mission is to provide a place for wounded warriors and their families to stay nearby during extended medical care. A place that felt like a home — not a hotel.

The first Fisher House was built at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There are 92 Fisher Houses across the United States and overseas. If the foundation can reach its goal of 100 houses, it will be able to provide private rooms and hot meals for 1,400 military and veteran families on any given night. Four houses are under construction, and six are in design. The four houses underway are in Lexington, Ky.; Columbia, S.C.; Columbia, Mo.; and a second house in Bay Pines, Fla.

Since 2001, more than 27,000 families have been guests. The Fisher House reports families have saved half a billion dollars in hotel bills and other costs.

“With 93 houses, Fisher House Foundation is excited to be on the road to 100 Fisher Houses, but we know this is just an incredible milestone,” said Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation. “The need only continues, especially for our veteran community. We have plans to build well past 100 to support those who have given so much to our great nation.”

Between the 9-foot-long kitchen island and the wide hallways — designed with wheelchairs and walkers in mind — Breckheimer said the Fisher House he stayed at felt like a mansion. But it was the volunteers and other guests who made him feel at home.

“They just went out of their way to make you feel comfortable,” Breckheimer said. “Not only did they cook and serve us our food, but they were also there to listen to us. To be around families that were going through the same tragedies that you and your family were going through was just comforting. You were relatable.”

Breckheimer said he found being around others like him kept him from feeling pessimistic — especially when he was in the presence of Joshua Sweeney, a Marine Corps veteran who later became a Paralympic ice hockey champion.

“Since then, he has been awarded the Pat Tillman award at the ESPYs,” Breckheimer said. “To see someone like that who had more traumatic injuries, but always seemed to be smiling more than I did, it was kind of nice to put things into perspective. I’m blessed to have my legs, and this guy lost both of his and he is living his best life. It’s good to look up to someone like that.”

During his recovery, Breckheimer set a goal to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. Now he holds the record for being the first Purple Heart recipient to do it.

And while veterans of the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq may be top of mind, the houses also serve those from previous battles as well.

Jeff Sampson of Joplin, Mo., performed his Navy service in the 1970s. In 2019, he needed double lung transplant surgery. He was told the procedure would keep him in Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for more than two months.

Sampson says he was more concerned with where his wife would stay than his recovery. Coming from small-town Joplin, Sampson said his wife was out of her element in the big city.

“I’m sure all veterans out there can relate to being more concerned with how their families will be taken care of, and that’s what the Fisher House does,” Sampson said. “They take care of you, and of the people who care about you.”

Sampson’s surgery took place during the infamous 2019 polar vortex. While driving back to the Fisher House from a hospital visit, Sampson’s wife got caught up in a blizzard and found herself lost in an unfamiliar part of the city.

“Along with the crazy drivers in St. Louis, it was not pretty,” Sampson said. “She was lost and crying, and she didn’t know what to do. She’s just a country girl out of her element.”

However, the Fisher House manager drove out to find Sampson’s wife, and his wife followed her back to the Fisher House.

“It very well possibly saved her life,” Sampson said.

Like Breckheimer, Sampson said the Fisher House was like family.

“We still go back every year,” Sampson said. “I have to go back to St. Louis for treatment, and I always have a place to stay — is what they will tell me. It’s like a family. You wouldn’t turn your family away.”

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Medal of Honor Recipients Challenge Americans to Save Vets From Suicide

More than two dozen of the nation’s top military heroes are calling on all Americans to save veterans and service members from suicide by connecting with them next month in a nationwide push to reverse the tragedy befalling the men and women in uniform.

Twenty-seven recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration for valor, have joined forces asking that members of Congress — and every American — take part in National Warrior Call Day on Nov. 13.

“With its simple mission of imploring all Americans to connect with someone who has worn or is currently wearing the uniform and let them know they care — National Warrior Call Day can foster greater connectivity. And greater connection can save lives,” they wrote in a letter to Congress.

National Warrior Call Day is supported by leading veteran organizations, current and former military officials, seven former Veterans Affairs secretaries, and a host of public policy organizations.

Connectivity is key to reversing the tragic suicide trends among military members. Two-thirds of veterans who take their own lives have had no contact with the Department of Veterans Affairs, highlighting the urgent need for greater connection. The ask is that on Nov. 13, every adult American should contact a veteran or service member and ask how they are doing, let them know they are cherished and, if necessary, steer them toward assistance when they might otherwise slip through the cracks.

Suicide is metastasizing among people in the armed forces or who have served. Pentagon figures show the suicide rate for active-duty soldiers last year was the highest it has been in nearly a century. More U.S. veterans have died by suicide in the previous 10 years than service members who died from combat in Vietnam. And after adjusting for sex and age, the rate of veteran suicide is far higher than the rate among all U.S. adults.

Moreover, a large segment of those who are disconnected and die by suicide may have undiagnosed brain injuries from their service that may present as mental illness but require an entirely different approach.

While the latest figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show a decline in the national suicide rate among veterans, the drop highlights a simmering issue pressed by suicide prevention advocates — the likely undercounting of the data.

For example, the deaths of veterans may not be tallied as suicides in certain instances in which self-harm plays a critical role. These include deaths due to addiction, drug overdoses, alcohol-induced incidents or accidents. While not strictly defined as suicide, they represent a statistical gray area. In addition, much variation permeates how each state accounts for deaths. An officially declared suicide in one state might not be in another.

The group America’s Warrior Partnership recently released an interim report from its multi-year study of suicide deaths across eight states and uncovered significant disparities between state and VA data and a large error rate in how the VA accounts for deaths of vets. The report found that the suicide rate was much greater, at 1.37 times the rate reported by the VA. And when researchers added in veterans whose deaths were from self-injury, including overdose deaths and other behavior closely aligned with self-harm or suicide, the rate of suicide was 2.4 times higher than the rate the VA reports.

“We understand firsthand the challenges that service members and veterans face and the need for their peers, friends and family to lift them up,” the 27 Medal of Honor recipients wrote to Congress.

With the assistance of all Americans — first on Nov. 13 and then throughout the year — National Warrior Call Day can make a difference. It can lift up those who need it and provide hope. It saves lives.

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Toomey Defends Opposition to $400B Democrat ‘Slush Fund’ in Veterans’ Legislation

Comedian-turned-progressive-activist Jon Stewart launched a profanity-laced tirade against Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and other Republicans over a healthcare bill that would provide care for veterans exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits.

“The Senate’s where accountability goes to die,” Stewart said. “These people don’t care. They’re never losing their jobs. They’re never losing their healthcare. Pat Toomey didn’t lose his job. He’s walking away. God knows what kind of pot of gold he’s stepping into to lobby this government to s**t on more people.”

But is that the real story?

No, says Toomey, who has repeatedly said he wants to support the PACT Act, but objects to Democrats using the legislation to create a $400 billion expense that would continue past the needs of the veterans it is designed to address.

“The PACT Act as written includes a budget gimmick that would allow $400 billion of current law spending to be moved from the discretionary to the mandatory spending category. This provision is completely unnecessary to achieve the PACT Act’s stated goal of expanding health care and other benefits for veterans,” Toomey said in a statement.

On July 11, Toomey said on the Senate floor the existing law requires the Veterans Administration to spend about $400 billion over the next 10 years on healthcare for veterans exposed to toxins during their service. The bill includes $280 billion in new spending. The $400 billion is discretionary spending, which has a cap.

The new legislation would put the $280 billion into the mandatory spending column, where it could live long after the veterans are cared for.

“What’s really outrageous is they take the $400 billion out of discretionary spending to mandatory spending,” Toomey said. “Why would they do that?”

“That way you create a big gaping hole in the discretionary spending category,” he said. “Which can be filled with another $400 billion of totally unrelated spending. Who knows on what?”

“We’ve got inflation that hitting a 40-year high. We’ve got a government that’s been spending billions of dollars, printing the money to spend, and everybody sees it every day, at the pump, at the grocery store, everywhere. And what this gimmick does is, it makes it possible to spend yet another $400 billion.”

Stewart remained unappeased.

“Patriot Pat Toomey stood on the floor and said, ‘This is a slush fund,’” said Stewart. “‘They’re gonna use $400 billion to spend on whatever they want.’ That’s nonsense. I call bulls**t. This isn’t a slush fund.”

Now Pennsylvania’s other Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, is also getting into the fray.

“This bill is essential to meet our obligations to fulfill our promise to them. These veterans already fulfilled their promise. They served their country in a war zone,” Casey said. “They could have been killed by combat fire. But even If they weren’t killed by combat fire they’re exposed to burn pits. We’ve got to provide them healthcare. If we don’t do this, what kind of a country are we?

“Who do we claim to be if we’re not going to do this? There are 14 members of the Senate who are against this. They’re holding up the bill because they don’t want to spend this money. It’s as simple as that.

“All we’ve got to do in the Senate is put our hand up. And say ‘yes.’ That’s pretty damn easy. Put your damn hand up,” Casey added.

Toomey’s spokesperson noted to Delaware Valley Journal, “This wasn’t even in the House committee version. This gimmick would allow for an additional $400 billion in future discretionary spending completely unrelated to veterans over the next 10 years.

“Sen. Toomey’s technical fix does not reduce spending on veterans by even $1 or affect the expansion of care and benefits in the underlying bill. All Sen. Toomey has asked for is that the legislation to spend $280 billion on an expansion of veterans benefits, all classified as mandatory and un-offset, does not also include a transfer of current law (non-PACT Act) spending to mandatory that would enable $400 billion of spending on things completely unrelated to veterans.”

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DelVal Veterans Struggle to Get Promised Services

Shaking with adrenaline, Robert McLaughlin was “raging” when he went to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia for help.

It has been five years since that harrowing encounter, but the Air Force veteran, now 32 and living in Bensalem, recalled the day with striking clarity, in an interview ahead of Veteran’s Day.

It changed his life for the better — and could have altered it for the worse if a caretaker hadn’t intervened.

McLaughlin, who served for five years starting in 2007, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home after spending time working in the burn pits in Iraq and doing tours of  duty in Afghanistan and Qatar.

Courtesy of Robert McLaughlin

He was stressed about his future and struggling financially. He had quit a job as an assistant manager at Wendy’s to start a fledgling dog-training business.

Tired of fighting with Veterans Affairs officials to honor his benefits, he was agitated and suicidal, having put a gun in his mouth several times before the visit.

The nurse at the front desk of the emergency room ran McLaughlin through standard intake questions. When she got to the last question, asking whether he was homicidal or suicidal, McLaughlin almost snapped.

“No, not right now. But I’m getting there,” he responded, prompting the nurse to reach under the table and hit the panic button, alerting security at the facility. “It was like the bell went off in a [boxing] ring.”

Unfortunately, McLaughlin’s horror story isn’t unique.

In 2015, a year before McLaughlin’s visit, another veteran, Gary Dorman, jumped to his death from the VA parking garage after seeking psychiatric treatment at the facility.

And area veterans who spoke with the Delaware Valley Journal recalled similar struggles as McLaughlin in gaining access to adequate healthcare, housing, employment, and services that would help them reintegrate into society after their tours of duty.

Philadelphia ranked as one of the worst major cities to live for the more than 19 million veterans in the U.S., according to a recent survey examining 100 of the nation’s biggest cities along several socioeconomic factors.

Cities were graded based on the number of skill-specific job offerings for vets, income levels, overall “veteran-friendliness,” and other factors. The results were less than lovely for the City of Brotherly Love, which came in 91st with a score of 44.1, ahead only of places like North Las Vegas, Newark, Jersey City, Baltimore and Detroit — which finished dead last.

The top three cities, respectively, were Tampa Bay, Austin, Texas, and Scottsdale, Arizona. They all provide significant opportunities for employment, better healthcare, and overall quality of life for vets, according to the survey. One expert cited in the report, Kevin Griffith, an assistant professor who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt University, said veterans are at higher risk for certain health disorders, such as PTSD and hepatitis C, than the rest of society.

Finding cities with robust healthcare facilities, either through the VA or private medical networks, that can address combat-specific issues such as “survivor’s guilt” can be the difference between life and death for veterans.

McLaughlin found that out the hard way, saying he undoubtedly would have come to blows with VA security if his wife hadn’t called a hospital coordinator who called off the officers.

“Pain kinda engages me. When you rage you have all this power that they build up in our bodies for warfare, and you come home and you have no way to get this out. I think they want us to lose our sh*t. If I go to jail, I don’t get my veterans benefits,” said McLaughlin, who has visited the Philly VA so many times in recent years that he’s memorized the address —3900 Woodland Avenue.

“If I had a genie who said, ‘What do you want?’ I’d say ‘I want 3900 Woodland Avenue to go away.’ It would take away a leg of their facade [of help],” he said.

Growing up in the “Black Bottom” Mantua section in West Philadelphia, Rodney Wyatt, a 67-year-old veteran who served in both the U.S. Marines and Army, said he joined the armed forces in the 1970s to escape poverty during times of great racial strife and get away from neighborhood gangs.

He was initiated into the “grandfather of all gangs” when he was 10 years old.

“It was a way of life at the time,” he said.

Knowing what it’s like to suffer from his own injuries after getting out of service, Wyatt started a Bristol-based nonprofit, Salute to Veterans, in 2014, helping veterans, some in their 90s, get “basic necessities” they need to live, to offset unmet gaps from agencies in the area.

In 2015, Philly officials claimed the city’s homeless veteran population was “functionally zero,” but The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this year that many veterans are still living on the streets. The Philly VA in 2020 reported that it found housing for at least 935 local veterans.

And with the suburban shelter overrun, Wyatt said some homeless vets were forced to live in the woods while others were waitlisted for services. While his organization helps between 10 to 25 veterans a week, Wyatt lamented a 94-year-old who died before the organization could clear the red tape to get the man his benefits.

“They take them through the ringer,” Wyatt said. “There’s so many disparities here. We’re the most overlooked population in the county. We need to be spotlighting veterans every day.”

Wyatt regularly fields calls from frustrated veterans who try to get help at the Philly VA, which has faced some bad publicity over the years.

In 2020, the feds charged a manager at the hospital with accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks to steer contracts to a Florida couple, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Federal prosecutors indicted another 15 VA employees and business owners in Florida the year before, for alleging they schemed to bilk millions marked for veterans’ care through inflated or unfulfilled purchase orders.

Money like that could have been funneled to help disabled veterans like 63-year-old Darryl Williams, of Bristol Township, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina between 1975 and 1979. Before being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, six years ago, Williams drove big rigs across the county, up and down the West Coast and as far away as Canada.

His condition has worsened, making it nearly impossible for him to drive and difficult to even fill out paperwork to get his benefits. He now gets along in a motorized wheelchair and must be hooked up to a half-dozen machines to keep him alive.

Williams requires in-home care but said the VA has fought paying for certain services, like housekeeping. It took him a year to get the financial assistance to make his Bristol home handicap accessible, requiring floors to be redone and entrances widened.

The VA will only cover expenses for someone to come out to his home and make up his bed and cook his meals, wanting Williams to transition over to hospice.

“When I die, I plan to die in my home,” said Williams, who has been hospitalized at least twice in the last few months with breathing complications. “It’s hard to find assistance because people expect you to do it on your own. And then they tell me to go to some website. I do have a computer but it’s not easy to operate when your hands are shaking.

“I just stay close to God. And just deal with the situation and try not to get angry. It does get frustrating because I didn’t ask for this. It just happened. Bad things happen to good people. It’s just a roll of the dice.”


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National Warrior Call Day: Shining a Light on Veteran Suicide

Military veterans make up roughly 10 percent of the adult population in the United States. Unfortunately, one of the most common causes of death for veterans is suicide. Increases in veteran suicide, especially during COVID, have caused the Troops First Foundation to take action by submitting a letter to Congress.

This letter, signed by the seven living secretaries of Veterans Affairs (VA), introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would make November 21, 2021, the first annual “National Warrior Call Day.”

U.S. Rep. Mary Scanlon (D-Delaware Co.) told Delaware Valley Journal the designation is only part of the solution to the large issue. Warrior Call Day’s goal is for Americans across the country to reach out to their family and friends who have served.

“By creating the day, there’ll start to be resources behind it,” Scanlon said. “There’s an organizing principle, and the various veterans groups can get behind it and community groups can kind of weigh in as well. I think it’s probably in a lot of ways just trying to bring more attention to the issue. I guess in a way that’s deemed to be helpful. One of the issues that we’ve seen over time, and you see the same thing with law enforcement, is that it’s very tough to kind of crack the nut with veterans to make sure that they get the services that are available, how to reach people, and similar to law enforcement, it’s the folks who are used to being the rescuers and not wanting to ask for help. So, trying to get the connections that will actually be helpful is the continuing challenge.”

Mental health issues are not uncommon in the United States, especially among military veterans. According to the VA, more than 1.7 million veterans received services for mental health issues in 2018.

Former VA Sec. David Shulkin, MD said, “Warrior Call Day is important to remind each of us that the sacrifices continue for the brave men and women who defend our country. We want all Americans to be aware of the responsibility to reach out and offer support to our veterans.”

Part of the issue with mental health and military veterans is the stigma that surrounds these issues. Asking for help can often be seen as a weakness for members of the Armed Forces. There is hope that Warrior Call Day will bring more attention to this problem and help break that cycle.

“I think it’s probably part of the whole de-stigmatization issue that we’re dealing with across the board with mental health issues and making sure that people check in with their loved ones and trying to get some traction that way,” Scanlon said. “Because of the escalating issues with suicide there have been a number of different approaches, whether it’s beefing up resources, or trying to find alternative methods of service delivery, making sure that we connect people as they’re leaving the service more strongly so they don’t have to go looking as hard. I think it’s part of a whole menu of efforts to really get a handle on the problem.”

For veterans, the services and resources by federal agencies, particularly the VA, often get mixed reviews. According to a survey by Pew Research, only 46 percent of those veterans surveyed felt the VA was doing a good job. Another survey by Pew Research found 37 percent felt the VA is doing a fair job, while 15 percent felt it is doing a poor job.

“I don’t think [Warrior Call Day] alone is going to bring these changes. I think it’s trying to shine a light on a particular issue and the mental health issues and trying to bring more public attention to it,” Scanlon said. “But being done in conjunction with a whole bunch of different efforts that have been trying to get more services available through the VA and make sure they’re more effective.”

One such way that Congress has moved to help veterans has been the Blue Water Navy Bill passed in 2019. This allows veterans exposed to Agent Orange an automatic presumption, which makes it easier for qualified veterans to receive compensation for conditions resulting from that service-related experience.

Scanlon also mentioned that a similar issue is being explored for post-9/11 veterans and the burn-pits used in the Middle East. About 25 percent of veterans are already experiencing health issues from exposure to these pits.

“We do have more former-service members in Congress now than we’ve had in decades so that is helpful to have people in the mix who are first hand on some of the issues,” Scanlon added.

Former VA Sec. Robert McDonald also urges Americans of the importance of National Warrior Call Day.

“We must get Veterans connected to other Veterans and the qualified care they deserve,” McDonald said. “The Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255) plays a critically important role in this. They save lives. We know from research that if we can connect Veterans to the VA (and the Crisis Line) we can save lives. Nearly 70 percent of those who take their own lives are not connected to the VA. So, National Warrior Call Day is an opportunity to connect every Veteran to the care they need and deserve.”


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